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By Keith Mulvihill
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - People with big heads may have reason to rejoice if findings by scientists in the Netherlands hold true. Individuals with larger brains may be protected from the normal decline in mental abilities that comes with age, researchers report.
One explanation for the finding may be the fact that people with bigger brains can afford the natural loss of cells as they age, according to a report in a recent issue of the journal Neurology.
Dr. Danielle J. Tisserand of Maastricht University and her colleagues examined a variety of mental abilities among more than 800 healthy adults between the ages of 50 and 81. They also measured the circumference of each participant's head.
It turned out that older people with smaller heads performed worse than those with bigger heads on tests of thinking ability and mental speed, Tisserand explained in an interview with Reuters Health.
However, there was no relationship between head size and memory, according to the report.
Previous research has identified a relationship between head size and mental ability in individuals with Alzheimer's disease, "but studies with healthy subjects are scarce," noted Tisserand.
The researchers stress that in their study head size played a larger role in a person's mental ability when compared to educational levels and developmental factors such as socioeconomic level or nutrition.
"Hence, it seems that it is really head size which influences the cognitive performance level," Tisserand said.
"It is known that after brain lesions, neurons close to the damaged area can take over functions that used to be executed by the lost cells. Bigger brains may therefore offer a better protection against cognitive deterioration: they provide a larger 'reserve'," explained Tisserand
"However, to be able to test this hypothesis, (more) research is necessary," she added.
SOURCE: Neurology 2001;56:969-971.