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Food deprivation in early childhood detrimental to late-life cognitive function

09 Jul 2020

Individuals who had severe nutritional deprivation as children are likely to have poorer cognitive abilities in old age, a study has found. Hunger in the first four years of life is particularly harmful, whereas exposure to it in adolescence and early adulthood may even contribute to better cognition.

The analysis involved 2,131 dementia-free older adults (mean age, 76.2 years; 50 percent female), among whom 51 percent had a history of hunger with the mean duration of exposure of 6.2 years. Hunger exposure occurred at ages 0−4 years in 281 participants, at ages 5−11 years in 441, at ages 12−18 years in 206, and at ages 19 years in 126. All participants underwent tests of memory, verbal fluency, and numeracy.

Those who were vs not exposed to hunger differed significantly from each other in terms of age, body mass index, number of chronic diseases, depressive symptoms, income, consumption of dairy products, fish or chicken, and legumes, as well as in delayed recall and numeracy test scores. Notably, individuals who reported hunger at ages 0−4 years than at ages ≥5 years experienced hunger for more years.

In regression models, hunger exposure at ages 0−4 years correlated with poorer immediate and delayed recall (p<0.001), fluency (p<0.001), and impaired numeracy factors (odds ratio, 0.57, 95 percent confidence interval, 0.42−0.79). These associations were attenuated following adjustments for duration of exposure to hunger but remained significant for immediate and delayed recall.

On the other hand, exposure to hunger at ages 12−18 years was associated with better immediate (p=0.010) and delayed recall (p=0.026) and fluency (p=0.003). The associations of hunger with cognitive decline were similar but less robust.

More studies are needed to elucidate the mechanisms underlying the findings and to explore whether the possible detrimental effect of early life food restriction on cognition can be reversed by improving food quantity and quality.

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