Booster Shots

Oddities, musings and news from the health world

Category: learning

If you value verbal skills in children, please talk while the TV is on

June 4, 2009 |  6:30 am

Baby Watching TV is a lot harder than it used to be. For parents, anyway. Now, not only should they avoid using the television as a babysitter, distraction or even sanity-saving break, they apparently also need to keep up a running commentary (or pseudo-dialogue) on what the little ones are watching. 

Researchers had already established that time spent watching TV or videos is linked to delayed language development in children ages 8 months to 16 months. (Here's the synopsis of that study.) What they didn't know was exactly why.

So in a new study published this week in Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, researchers at the University of Washington and Seattle Children's Reseach Institute measured everything heard by, or uttered by, 329 children ages 2 months to 48 months. They did this by attaching digital recorders to the kids' clothing on various days throughout a two-year period.

Each hour of TV the children heard was linked to a 7% decrease in words that adults spoke to them. It was also connected to a decrease in the number of words (or utterances, really — these are very small kids) from the children themselves. (Here's the synopsis of the new study.)

The report concludes: "Having a television on within earshot of young children diminishes their exposure to adult words, their own vocalizations, and the conversational turns in which they engage."

This doesn't mean TV is bad, mind you. And the researchers point out that, unsurprisingly, many parents interact less with their children when the television is on. One of the things they seem to be taking issue with is the notion that some of the shows the kids are watching promise to encourage parent-child interaction — and that such interaction appears limited.

They add: "Given the critical role that adult caregivers play in children's linguistic development, whether they talk to their child while the screen is on may be critical and explain the effects that are attributed to content or even amount of television watched.

In short, it's OK to talk while watching TV.

— Tami Dennis

Photo: Playing with your baby is good; shushing her and yourself while watching "Sesame Street" ... not so good.

Credit: Beatrice de Gea / Los Angeles Times

Brain drugs won't go away, so best give them some thought

April 20, 2009 |  1:05 pm

Ritalin If pills can make us better mentally -- and it seems clear they can -- it's time to answer the question of whether we should let them. 

For some people, the question is already moot. In the April 27 issue of the New Yorker, writer Margaret Talbot explores the issue of brain medications in "Brain Gain: The underground world of 'neuroenhancing' drugs."

She writes: "In recent years Adderall and Ritalin, another stimulant, have been adopted as cognitive enhancers: drugs that high-functioning, overcommitted people take to become higher-functioning and more overcommitted."

She tells her story in some part through a recent Harvard graduate named Alex. He makes a compelling case for what can be accomplished with a little help.

Some neuroscientists and ethicists have already answered the bigger question among themselves. Says a recent blog post from Times staff writer Melissa Healy: "Pop a smart pill? Why not, says a group of neuroethicists"

-- Tami Dennis

Photo: Ritalin -- the little helper for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and overworked, over-stressed students -- is going mainstream.

Credit: Keith Beaty/Toronto Star/ZUMA Press

Mentally challenging job may keep brain sharper for longer

May 13, 2008 |  4:00 am


Is your job a brain-buster? Here's something to think about: Having an intellectually challenging job may help stave off cognitive decline in old age.

In a study of 1,036 male twins, using data that went back to the early 1940s, researchers at Duke University Medical Center found that the more mentally challenging one's job, the better memory and other cognitive abilities held up after retirement, regardless of one's intelligence or years of education.

Further, the benefits of hard pondering at work were greatest among people who scored lower on IQ tests as children, while physically demanding jobs were associated with a decline in intellectual abilities in later life.

"Although the intellectual and physical demands of an individual's job are not the largest factors influencing cognitive performance as we age," says lead author Guy Potter, assistant professor of psychiatry at Duke, "this study illustrates how a number of smaller influences like these can accumulate over the life span to have a positive or negative effect on brain health in later life." The study appears in the May issue of the journal Neurology. Here's a link to the study's abstract (viewing the full study requires a subscription).

--Janet Cromley

Photo: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times


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