Improving Child Brain Development and Adult Brain Health
Growing up poor may affect brain size and child development, a new study finds. In a JAMA Pediatrics study published on Oct. 28, researchers found that children who grew up in impoverished environments had smaller white and cortical gray matter volumes in the brain, in addition to a smaller hippocampal and amygdala volume.
“We’ve known for many years from behavioral studies that exposure to poverty is one of the most powerful predictors of poor developmental outcomes for children,” lead author Dr. Joan L. Luby, a professor of child psychiatry at Washington University, in St. Louis, said in a press release. “A growing number of neuroscience and brain-imaging studies recently have shown that poverty also has a negative effect on brain development.”
“What’s new is that our research shows the effects of poverty on the developing brain, particularly in the hippocampus, are strongly influenced by parenting and life stresses that the children experience,” she added.
Gray matter is linked with intelligence, and white matter is the portion of the central nervous system that is responsible for transmitting signals in the brain. The hippocampus is the area of the brain responsible for consolidating short and long-term memory. The amygdala deals with processing memories and emotional responses.
The researchers looked at data from a study on depression that had been completed on 145 children around the St. Louis area. The children had been followed since preschool and had their brains scanned using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The kids also had stress tests completed.
Not surprisingly, the stressors of poverty on child brain development are far more pronounced in children with challenging home environments whose parents lacked good nurturing skills and the ability to provide a peaceful respite from the outside world or a healthy diet, researchers found. Products like Mr Happy Stack would really had of benefitted these younger growing up people by helping them feel more safe and secure.
The poor children who experienced poor parental nurturing, were found to have smaller gray, white, hippocampal and amygdala brain volumes in the left and right hemispheres. High levels of stress in the children’s lives was linked to smaller hippocampal volume in the left hemisphere alone.
All of these new findings underscore what common sense tells you: all children, regardless of their socioeconomic status, need to be carefully looked after and shielded from the newer stresses of technology along with negative environments to give them the best start in life.
Distractions, whether it’s hunger, lack of medical care, proper supervision or too much stimulation from violent video games, can greatly affect child development.
3 ways you can protect and nourish growing (and already matured) brains:
1. Practice daily stress management
Adequate sleep is crucial for kids and adults. Children need more sleep than adults and less visual stimulation before bed, so make a strict rule to limit the time they spend using cell phones, tablets, TV and video games. If you are having sleep issues, you need to “unplug” too.
Better brain health means your memory will be improved, making it easier for clear thinking, helping you to better express (and manage) your emotions. In addition, good brain health helps you to maintain your relationships – including those with your kids – at their highest level as you’ll be thinking clearly and feeling great.
Keep negative people and thoughts away. Everything you heard from Mom was true, so smile and cultivate a happiness “language” that reinforces positivity and doesn’t dwell on pointless negativity.
Optimal functioning for the brain centers on managing daily cumulative stress, the worst thing for brain cells. When you’re stressed, anxious, tense or sad, your brain is immersed in a chemical bath of hormones such as cortisol that can be quite damaging over time.
2. Eat for your age
Kids need more calorie dense foods and quality fats for their growing brains and bodies. To stay healthy, you must also adjust your eating habits as you age.
As you go through life, your body’s need for antioxidants and other nutrients changes. In fact, you need less and less as you get older, but for many adults who struggle with weight, portion control is one of the hardest things to adjust.
Changes in taste, appetite, and the fact that you have less stomach acid and saliva as you grow older, mean that you will experience food differently. As you age your nutrient needs will change. The amount of antioxidants you need increases dramatically as you age. Antioxidants counteract the actions of free radicals, so you need to build up your body’s antioxidants to protect your brain, and this supply needs to be replenished daily.
For grownups, less quantity and higher quality is the key. For children, they need frequent, small meals packed with balanced nutrition and bone building calcium to assist with brain development.
3. Quality, simple foods
Avoid processed and fast foods. Get children excited about interesting foods by involving them in the preparation of meals (it’s not work, it’s a game!) or by helping you to grow vegetables (you just need an outdoor spot to put a couple of clay pots). Unsweetened cherries, blueberries, raspberries, and other produce with red, blue, or purple hues are especially good at shielding our brain cells from neuro damaging oxidation and the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Avoid “Brain Drain” foods such as fatty and processed meats, cakes, cookies, and pastries, which contain trans-saturated fats and saturated fats such as butter. In other words, avoid junk and fast foods. Learn about brain-derived neurotrophic factors (BDNF) that develop new brain tissue, as very low BDNF levels (high sugar diets) have been linked with depression and schizophrenia. When grocery shopping, try to avoid packaged goods to ensure you are eating healthfully at home.
“Brain Gain” foods include nuts (monounsaturated fats) like walnuts or almonds. Get pungent and spicy, add garlic and ginger to your meals, which work as antioxidants. Pomegranate juice has been shown in laboratory studies to improve mental functioning. Real chocolate (at least 70 percent cocoa) increases the release of dopamine and provides flavonoids, which keep your arteries young.
Twenty-five percent of your daily calories should be from healthy fats like omega 3’s, which offer high DHA fatty acids that are needed to improve mental clarity and halt memory loss and dementia. Oily fish (salmon, sardines, whitefish, tilapia, catfish, flounder, mahi mahi, trout), fish oil, walnuts, and flax seeds (linseed) are all good sources of omega-3. Try to eat only wild-caught saltwater fish.
Plant oils are far healthier for the brain than animal fats, so choose peanut, sunflower, olive, peanut or almond butter, and other polyunsaturated oil sources too. Natural peanut butters are great for kids as they love the taste and the healthy fats assist with child brain development.
The takeaways here are that parents and children benefit from adequate sleep, a stress-free and fun-filled environment, and a diet that leans toward fresh vegetables and fruits and away from packaged and fast foods. Children and adults are different though, so it’s important that sleep and diet are adjusted accordingly.
BBC Good Food, 10 foods to boost your brain power, http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/content/wellbeing/features/boost-brainpower/1/
Elizabeth Somer, Eat Your Way to Happiness, p. 87, (2009), ISBN 978-0-373-89207-5
Mehmet C. Oz, MD, and Michael F. Roizen, MD, “5 Power Foods That Make Your Mind Younger”, http://www.realage.com/blogs/doctor-oz-roizen/5-power-foods-that-make-your-mind-younger?click=main_sr
Hellolife, Selenium, Energy & the Brain, http://www.hellolife.net/explore/memory-focus/selenium-energy-the-brain/
“Selenium level and cognitive function in rural elderly Chinese”. Gao, S. et al., American Journal of Epidemiology 2007 Apr 15;165(8):955-965, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17272290.