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Hunger Linked to Less Cognitive Decline

Study finds children who went hungry had slower decline

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, "What does not kill me makes me stronger," and the phrase has gone on to serve as inspiration for many people who are enduring tough circumstances.

His claim gets some support from a study by researchers at Rush University Medical Center.

People who reported being hungry often as children had slower cognitive decline compared to people who always had enough food to eat, according to a study by epidemiological researchers from the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center. The findings were published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

"These results were unexpected because other studies have shown that people who experience adversity as children are more likely to have problems such as heart disease, mental illness and even lower cognitive functioning than people whose childhoods are free of adversity," says study author Lisa Barnes, PhD, a cognitive neuropsychologist in the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center.

Food for thought

The study involved 6,158 people with an average age of 75 who lived in Chicago. Participants were asked about their health as children, their financial situation and their home learning environment, which was based on how often others read to them, told stories to them and played games with them. Then, every three years for up to 16 years, participants took cognitive tests to measure any changes.

The 5.8 percent of black participants who reported that they went without enough food to eat sometimes, often or always were more likely to have a slower rate of cognitive decline than those who rarely or never went without enough food to eat. Black participants accounted for 62 percent of the pool.

The 8.4 percent of black participants who reported that they were much thinner at age 12 than other kids their age also were more likely to have a slower rate of cognitive decline than those who said they were about the same size or heavier than other kids their age.

For the white participants, there was no relationship between any of the childhood adversity factors and cognitive decline.

"Because relatively few white participants in the study reported childhood adversity, the study may not have been able to detect an effect of adversity on cognitive decline in whites," Barnes says.

The results stayed the same after researchers adjusted for factors such as amount of education and health problems. Researchers are not sure why childhood hunger could potentially protect someone from cognitive decline.

"One potential explanation for the finding could be found in research that has shown that calorie restriction can delay the onset of age-related changes in the body and increase life span," Barnes says. "Another possible explanation is that the older people in the study who experienced childhood adversity may be the hardiest and most resilient of their era; those with the most extreme adversity may have died before they reached old age.