cognitive function

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Hope For The Older Mind — Maybe Not Clueless, Just ‘Fuller’

Mr. Mo-Fo/flickr

Mr. Mo-Fo/flickr

Last week I inadvertently dropped my keys into the garbage at Starbucks.

Of course, I didn’t realize it at the time, and it took about 45 minutes of retracing — back to the baristas, who said no, they’d found no keys, back to Trader Joe’s, again no trace of lost keys, and back, once more, to Starbucks, where I sheepishly asked the pierced and rather dismissive coffee girl if I could rifle through the garbage. After going through several bags, I reached into the last one and there, covered in wet grinds and God knows what else, were my car keys.

At first, the incident made my heart heavy, and led me to this story line: I’m so very middle-aged and edging into cognitive decline, joining the ranks of my senior relatives who do clueless things like drop half-eaten apples into the mail box, forget their kids’ birthdays, tell that story about the guy with the pig farm in Montana again and again and again. But in a slight glimmer of positivity, I thought, some part of my brain remembered that I’d thrown a few things in the garbage, and another part urged me to forge ahead, into the dank underbelly of the Starbucks trash bags, until I emerged triumphant. In other words, in a tiny, distant quadrant of my brain there was cognitive crispness, or at least a murky memory that contained the location of my keys.

And lo, in The New York Times this morning, Benedict Carey bolsters my positivity with a story headlined: The Older Mind May Just Be A Fuller Mind. OK, it’s a study with no actual subjects and it’s highly preliminary, but I’ll take it:

“…the new report will very likely add to a growing skepticism about how steep age-related decline really is,” he writes.

And here’s a little background:

Scientists who study thinking and memory often make a broad distinction between “fluid” and “crystallized” intelligence. The former includes short-term memory, like holding a phone number in mind, analytical reasoning, and the ability to tune out distractions, like ambient conversation. The latter is accumulated knowledge, vocabulary and expertise. Continue reading

Study: Dad’s Spanking Can Lead To Cognitive Problems For Children

Spanking is bad. We know that. Early-childhood spanking has been consistently linked to troubled and troubling behavior later in life.

But new research out of the Columbia University School of Social Work sheds light on the particulars of that bad-ness, and offers details on how spanking may impact a child’s cognitive development. The new data, published in the journal Pediatrics, suggests that paternal spanking at age 5 is connected to verbal skill deficits at age 9.

Researchers, led by Dr. Michael MacKenzie, looked at data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being (FFCW) Study. The FFCW gathered information on more than 4,000 children born between 1998 and 2000 in 20 average-sized U.S. cities; researchers assessed reports of spanking at age 3 and 5 along with results from behavioral and cognitive tests at age 9.

This represents the percentage of parents responding "yes" to spanking their child in the past month. (Source: Pediatrics, graphics by Rachel Bloom)

The percentage of parents responding “yes” to spanking their child in the past month. (Source: Pediatrics, graphics by Rachel Bloom)

One fact emerged early on: spanking is a common practice. Although the use of spanking declines from age 3 to 5, researchers report more than half of moms and about a third of dads spank their young kids at least once a month. Some children were punished more than others; when kids were 5, 5.5% of moms and 3% of dads reported spanking them at least twice a week.

So, what did spanking do to these kids? Frequent (at least twice per week) spanking at age 3 and any spanking at age 5 by mom predicted bad behavior at age 9; and frequent spanking by dad at age 5 predicted vocabulary deficits. Continue reading

Your Brain On Butter: The Fats That May Hasten Mental Decline

Researchers link saturated fats found in butter and red meat to cognitive and memory decline in older women. (madlyinlovewithlife/flickr)

What’s good for the heart is good for the brain, the medical thinking goes.

Here’s the latest twist: What’s bad for the heart turns out to be bad for the brain. Put another way, some fats may make us stupider — or at least less cognitively on the ball.

Amid growing evidence that what we eat has a profound impact on brain function, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that women who consumed the highest amounts of saturated fat — which can come from animal fats like red meat and butter — had worse overall cognitive function and memory over four years of testing compared to women who ate the lowest amounts of such fats. Moreover, women who consumed the most monounsaturated fats — think olive oil — scored better on the cognitive function tests over time.

(Trans-fats found in processed and baked goods — like those ginormous muffins they used to sell at the corner deli — are also considered “bad” but in this particular study, they weren’t associated with declines in cognitive ability.)

To be clear, this latest research doesn’t mean that if you start cooking with olive oil instead of butter you’ll suddenly be able to locate your car keys or remember your mother-in-law’s birthday.

But it does strongly suggest that the type of fat you eat matters, Continue reading