Can brain health change with the seasons?
Summer is here and with it, longer days and more Vitamin D courtesy of the extended sunshine hours. With more outdoor activities calling and more socializing with family and friends – pool parties and barbecues galore – it has been known for some time that the summer months come with some added health benefits. So how does the season change really affect our brain health? Are we smarter in the summer? Some experts say yes!
Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a well-known condition that affects five percent of the U.S. population. Sometimes called the “winter blues”, SAD is thought to be caused by reduced sunlight and the colder temperatures that the winter months bring. Just as the winter months can bring changes to our health, so too do the lengthening days and warmer temperatures of summer. In fact, some researchers have begun to look closer at the health benefits that summer affords our brains.
One study of more than 3,000 people in the U.S., Canada and France examined cognitive function across the different seasons. Its’ findings, published by PLOS Medicine, showed that people with dementia are more alert in the summer and autumn while mental function declined by the equivalent of 4.8 years in spring and winter. While the study doesn’t explain why the seasons affect cognitive ability, it does show that seasonal variables such as light exposure, hormonal changes and increased social activities do positively impact brain health. In addition, it has led to recommendations that diagnosis for dementia and similar conditions should be made in the winter months when symptoms are more evident, providing a different approach to such diagnosis.
In a separate study, researchers in Belgium measure the brain function of 28 adults during all four seasons. At each session, they were completely sheltered from seasonal clues, then after four and a half days, their brains were scanned while they completed tasks requiring memory and sustained attention. The results showed that during the winter months, participants used far less brain activity, while brain activity peeked in the summer months showing that, perhaps, the brain adapts its level of efficiency based on the time of year. Just as science has shown that the seasons play a part in mood, metabolism, immune system efficiency and even the perception of colors, now we are seeing proof that the brain responds to the changing seasons too providing more and more insight into the true power of the brain and its’ amazing abilities.