Gray Matters

Oregon: Brains are different here

By Kasey Cordell August 18, 2009 Published in the September 2009 issue of Portland Monthly

Brainstorm brain graphic xwg0j2

Image: OMSI

We’ve always known Oregonians were smarter than most Americans—after all, we choose to live here as opposed to, say, California. But now there’s proof. According to a study released by Market Biosciences in June, Oregon ranks 13th in the nation for brain health. The study, developed by brain-health expert and best-selling author Dr. Michael Roizen, assessed and ranked Americans on 21 different factors that contribute to better gray matter, from how well we eat to how often we check in with God (granted, some of the metrics seem a little “fuzzy” to us). The District of Columbia, Maryland, and Washington top the list, thanks largely to healthy eating (Washington ranks first in sales of fish, a brain-friendly food), while Oklahoma, Alabama, and Louisiana hold down the bottom spots. As for California, it’s sucking our tailpipe down at No. 20. Here’s a look at what’s buoying Oregon brains up—and what’s holding them back.

Fish Oregon ranks seventh in the nation in sales of fish, according to Dr. Roizen’s study. And our scaly supper is rich in docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid that is a fundamental ingredient in building brain cells and has been linked to healthier hearts.

Milk We like boobs—or, more specifically, breast milk. Nearly 90 percent of Oregonians were breastfed at some point, and close to 40 percent of us were still being breastfed at 1 year old (nationally, less than a quarter of babies are still breastfeeding at that age), scoring us the No. 3 spot nationwide for suckling. Breast milk is brain food: like fish, it contains DHA, which, studies show, contributes to the development of infants’ eyes, brains, and nervous systems.

Exercise Perhaps it’s the bountiful outdoor options, or our smog-free air (ahem, cough, California), or, more simply, vanity, but Oregonians rate second in the country for getting off their duffs, with almost 81 percent of us participating in physical activity in the past month. A good thing, since exercise is linked to better cognitive function. We can see the T-shirt now: “Heart pumping = brain plumping.”

Education Do we really need to explain why education improves brain function? Well, given the recent session of the Oregon Legislature, apparently we do. After all, Oregon comes in a pathetic 41st in education in Roizen’s study, a ranking linked to our poor funding for public schools and universities, high student–teacher ratios, and mediocre test scores. Can you spell c-o-r-r-e-l-a-t-i-o-n? If you were schooled in Oregon, maybe not.

God The American Time Use Survey reports that Portlanders spend less than 5 minutes a day engaging in a religious or spiritual activity, while the national average is closer to 10, landing us at No. 40 for getting religion. That’s a problem according to Roizen, who points to a 2007 study by the American Academy of Neurology that suggests faith can significantly reduce your rate of cognitive decline. Perhaps not surprisingly, Oregonians don’t believe it.

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