Early-life food deprivation and cognitive performance among older Europeans

Ella Cohn-Schwartz, Galit Weinstein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Early-life adversity, including food deprivation, has been linked with late-life cognitive function. Our aim was to explore the association between the early experience of hunger (the age at which it was experienced and its duration) and cognitive performance and decline among older Europeans. Methods: Our sample comprised dementia-free individuals aged ≥65 years who participated in waves 3 and 4 of the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE). Information on periods of hunger during the life course was gathered in wave 3 (2009; SHARELIFE). Cognitive performance was assessed using tests of memory, verbal fluency and numeracy in waves 4 (2011) and 5 (2013). Regression models were used to assess the relationship between the experience of hunger at different ages and its duration and cognitive performance and decline while adjusting for age, sex, education, lifestyle and health factors. Results: Among a sample of 2131 individuals (mean age = 76.2 years; 50 % women), the experience of hunger when aged 0−4 years was associated with poorer immediate and delayed recall, fluency and impaired numeracy factors (B±SE=-0.58 ± 0.12; p < 0.001; B±SE=-0.74 ± 0.13; p < 0.001, B±SE=-1.60 ± 0.42; p < 0.001 and OR [95 % CI] = 0.57 [0.42−0.79], respectively). These results attenuated after controlling for duration of the experience of hunger but remained significant for immediate and delayed recall. The experience of hunger at ages 12−18 years was associated with better immediate recall, delayed recall and fluency (B±SE = 0.38 ± 0.15; p = 0.010; B±SE = 0.37 ± 0.17; p = 0.026, B±SE = 1.57 ± 0.53; p = 0.003, respectively). The associations of hunger with cognitive decline were similar but less robust. Conclusions: Our findings suggest that severe nutritional deprivation in early childhood may be associated with poor cognitive function in later life, while food deprivation in later childhood and adolescence may be protective.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)26-32
Number of pages7
StatePublished - Nov 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Elsevier B.V.


  • Childhood
  • Cognitive performance
  • Food deprivation
  • Longitudinal
  • Old age
  • Life Style
  • Age Factors
  • Humans
  • Child, Preschool
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Cognition
  • Europe/epidemiology
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Female
  • Malnutrition
  • Child
  • Retirement
  • Cognitive Dysfunction/epidemiology
  • Child Nutritional Physiological Phenomena
  • Ethnicity
  • Aging/psychology
  • Adolescent
  • Aged
  • Memory, Short-Term

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • Obstetrics and Gynecology


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