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Wednesday, 26 January, 2000, 08:06 GMT
Childhood poverty link to dementia

Normal but inefficient brains may deteriorate with age


Children from large families run a greater risk of developing Alzheimer's disease in later life, say researchers.

A study by the University of Washington - published in Neurology, the journal of the American Academy of Neurology - links an impoverished childhood with the later development of dementia.

Increased risk of Alzheimer's disease
The risk increases by 8% for each additional sibling in the family
Those growing up with five or more siblings have a 39% greater risk
Researchers looked into the childhood of 770 over-60-year-old members of an American medical insurance scheme.

Author, Dr Victoria Moceri, said: "This early-life environment and its effect on the growth and maturation of children is linked to many adult diseases, such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

"We wanted to test whether Alzheimer's may also have a link to the early-life environment."

Aggravated by the onset of ageing

The areas of the brain that show the earliest signs of Alzheimer's are the one that take the longest time to mature during childhood and adolescence.

Dr Moceri said that "a poor quality childhood environment could prevent the brain from reaching a complete level of maturation".

And she added that the effects of impaired development could be a brain that is normal, but that functions less efficiently.

The negative effects of a less efficient brain would be marginal until they were aggravated by the onset of ageing, she said.

She added: "Families with five or more children were more likely to be from the lower socio-economic levels, and therefore more likely to have poor growth rates."

Suburbs better than farms and city

The study also found that children who grew up in the suburbs, rather than the city or farms, were less likely to get dementia.

Dr Moceri said: "This could reflect the benefits of higher socio-economic status and less exposure to infectious disease. During the early 1900s, infectious diseases were more frequent in urban areas than in less densely populated areas.

"Children growing up in the suburbs may have been more likely to have better nutrition and less exposure to infectious disease, leaving more energy for normal growth and development.

"Many farming families during his era experienced economic difficulties and left their farms for jobs in the city."

Researchers also examined the mother's age at the child's birth and the birth order within the family and found no relationship between those factors and whether the child developed Alzheimer's disease."

Dr Richard Harvey, director of research at the UK's Alzheimer's Disease Society, said that the findings should be treated with some caution.

He said: "It is an interesting piece of research, and it would be interesting to narrow it down further to see which aspect of these people's childhood had an impact on developing Alzheimer's in later life.

"But it would be nice to see this research repeated."

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See also:
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'Brain cell transplant' for Alzheimer's
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Nicotine-like drugs could beat Alzheimer's
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Smoking may double the risk of Alzheimer's

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