Monday, December 17

As Memories Fade, Food is Hard to Forget

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Towards the end of my mother’s life, her memory became worse. She didn’t have Alzheimer’s, but at 88 she had trouble remembering.

She couldn’t remember friends’ names or what year she visited Alaska. But she always had distinct memories of my aunt’s famous fudge or her favorite ice cream (she had a real sweet tooth).

Every day when I visited, she would recount what she had for lunch that day – even if she couldn’t remember what day it actually was.

What my mother experienced is actually very common, according to a recent study.

That new research found that knowledge related to food is relatively well preserved even in diseases that lead to a decline in memory and cognition, such as Alzheimer’s.

It may be because food is so crucial to our survival, according to researchers at the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) in Italy.

High caloric food are the most easily remembered by older people. (Photo courtesy Horton)

“It should not be surprising that food resists even generalized cognitive decline,” said Raffaella Rumiati, who led the study. “It is not difficult to imagine how evolutionary pressure could lead to increased strength in cognitive processes related to fast recognition of what is probably the most important stimulus for survival.”

For the study, researchers tested the cognitive performance of two groups of patients and a control group of healthy people in tasks concerning visual recognition of food and comprehension.

Another interesting finding of the study, according to the researchers, is that in all three groups — the two patient groups and the control group — food information was processed better than “non-food” information.

“We know from the literature that the names of the most caloric foods are acquired early in life,” Rumiati said.

The researchers also discovered another interesting detail: The more caloric a food seems, the better it is preserved in our memories.

“This phenomenon may be closely related to what I said earlier: The more nutritious the food, the more important it is to recognize it,” Rumiati said.

I don’t know about nutritious, but the foods my mom remembered — such as Aunt Doris’ fudge and Strickland’s ice cream — were certainly among the highest calorie foods she consumed.

As her appetite waned in her last few weeks of her life, the memories of those special treats would always bring a smile to her face. I like to think it’s because of the good times that were associated with eating those treats and the memories she held dear.

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