That Which Doesn't Starve You…

Cognitive decline slower among African Americans who had hunger and adversity in youth

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) They say that which does not kill you makes you stronger. In one sense, that may be right. African-Americans who went hungry as kids saw their cognitive skills last longer as seniors.

A recent study compared how seniors' cognitive skills declined with their experiences early in life.

The African-Americans who often went hungry had slower declines than those who always had food. The African-Americans who were thinner at age 12 also seemed to have better mental skills as seniors.

The researchers are not sure why, but they did not see the same effect in the white participants studied.

"Eat less, move more."

The study, led by Lisa L. Barnes, PhD, from the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, looked at the possible relationship between experiencing adversity early in life and cognitive decline later in life.

The study included regular interviews with 6,158 African-American (62 percent) and white (38 percent) Chicago residents starting in the period from 1993 to 1997.

The first interview included questions related to early life experiences of the participants, who were an average age of 75, and four short tests of their cognitive abilities and memory skills.

The participants were then interviewed every three years for up to 16 years total.

"Adversity" early in life was categorized in three different ways: having a poor environment for cognitive growth as a child, having poor health as a child and living in poverty as a child.

A home with strong cognitive growth was one where adults played games with and told stories to the children frequently. The study did show that those who were not frequently told stories or didn't often play games had lower cognitive scores at the start of the study.

Family financial security was partly rated on how often the individuals went hungry as a child.

The researchers found experiencing adversity early in life was associated with different outcomes in cognitive decline among African-Americans and whites.

In particular, the 5.8 percent of African-Americans who had been frequently deprived of food as children and the 8.4 percent who were thinner than normal when they were 12 saw their cognitive function decline a third more slowly than those who never went hungry.

Even when the researchers took into account differences in educational levels and other health problems, African-Americans still had a slower cognitive decline if they had gone hungry as children or been thinner than average.

Among whites, there was no link found either way related to cognitive decline and adversity early in life.

The African-Americans and whites in the study started out with some significant differences aside from their race/ethnicity. The African-Americans tended to be younger and had fewer years of education.

They also had lower cognitive scores at the start of the study compared to the white participants. Also, more of the African-Americans in the study had experienced adversity in their early lives compared to the whites, especially in terms of poverty and not playing games with adults as children.

Yet the results were still surprising to the researchers.

“These results were unexpected because other studies have shown 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,” said Dr. Barnes in a release.

Those who went hungry as children did tend to have lower scores in cognitive skills at the start of the study. But their cognitive function declined at a slower rate.

"The protective effect of adversity in older African-Americans was unexpected and the biological basis of the association is unknown," the researchers wrote in their study.

One possibility is that those who withstood the hunger of their youth became more resilient, which helped them later in life.

A weakness of the study is that only a small number of the whites in the study reported experiencing adversity as kids based on the measures used, so the sample may not have been large enough to see a similar effect in the white participants.

The study was published December 10 in the journal Neurology. The research was funded by the National Institute on Aging, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
December 10, 2012
Last Updated:
December 11, 2012