CHICAGO, Dec. 11 (Xinhua) -- Hunger and malnutrition in infancy may lead to poor cognitive performance in midlife, said a study jointly conducted by researchers at University of Michigan (UM), Michigan State University and Columbia University.
Drawing on data from China's nationally representative longitudinal survey of middle-aged and older adults in 2011, the researchers used validated assessments of cognitive functions, including attention, time orientation and episodic memory, as part of their tests with 2,446 rural Chinese who were born between 1958 and 1963.
Participants were also asked to redraw a picture of two overlapped pentagons shown to them, in a way to assess their visuospatial skills.
In addition, researchers analyzed data from a follow-up survey in 2013 to see changes in cognition between 2011 and 2013.
The study found that the group born in 1959, who had malnutrition in utero and in the first two years of life, scored higher in the baseline study than the reference group born in 1963, a year without famine.
"Despite having a higher general cognition at the baseline due to mortality selection, they (those born in 1959) experienced a sharper decline over a two-year follow-up," said Hongwei Xu, the lead author of the study and research assistant professor at UM's Institute for Social Research.
The study also showed that those born in 1961, the last year of the famine, had significantly lower cognitive scores than those born after the famine. No significant negative famine effects were found in people born in 1962 who were mildly affected by famine during the prenatal period and no exposure to famine after birth.
After controlling for the education factor, researchers still found negative impacts on middle-aged adults born in China's three years of famine period.
Accelerated midlife cognitive decline could increase the risk of dementia or Alzheimer's diseases down the road.
"China's population aging is accelerating," Xu said. "People tend to treat all types of cognitive decline as part of a normal aging process. But our study showed that these groups are very vulnerable due to hunger or malnutrition in utero and infancy."
The study, being the first to investigate the long-term cognitive consequences of early life exposure to famine in a non-Western context, has been published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.