Want to raise successful kids? Harvard, MIT study says doing one thing at age 4 could make them happier and wealthier in life

Thanks to modern science, there are a number of effective — yet obvious — strategies to smart parenting. But last year, a group of researchers at MIT, Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania found that one of the best things parents can do for their children is to have frequent back-and-forth exchanges with them. 

The findings suggest that doing this at an early age (typically between ages 4 to 6) will help develop, foster and improve what is perhaps one of the most important skills that contribute to success in life: Communication.

What’s more, a number of studies have supported the idea that children with stronger communication skills are more likely to have healthier relationships, longer marriageshigher self-esteem and overall satisfaction in life.

.. We talk to our kids all the time — both directly and indirectly. “Sit here.” “Hurry, we’re going to be late.” “Great job!” “No, don’t do that.” “Alexa, read us a bedtime story.” The secret, however, is to have back-and-forth conversations.

For the study, researchers evaluated 36 children using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify the differences in how the brain responds to different conversational styles.

They found that the Broca’s area, a region of the brain that focuses on speech production and language processing, was much more active in children who engaged in more back-and-forth conversations. Children who had more activation in that region of the brain scored higher in tests of language, grammar and verbal reasoning skills.

“The really novel thing about our paper is that it provides the first evidence that family conversation at home is associated with brain development in children,” John Gabrieli, the senior author of the study, told MIT News. “It’s almost magical how parental conversation appears to influence the biological growth of the brain.”

.. Back in 1995, a landmark study found that children from higher-income families appeared to have much greater language and communication abilities, and it was thought to be correlated with the fact that those children were exposed to about 30 million more words during the first years of life, compared to children of lower-income families.

But findings from this recent study suggest that the “30 million word gap” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The conversational turn-taking seems like the thing that makes a difference, regardless of socioeconomic status,” Gabrielli said. “Such turn-taking occurs more often in families from a higher socioeconomic status, but children coming from families with lesser income or parental education showed the same benefits from conversational turn-taking.”

The point isn’t to have deep philosophical conversations with your children, but to instead carry conversations that require back-and-froth dialogue.

It’s not difficult to make that leap, and they’ll benefit in significant ways in the long run; interactive conversations help improve communication skills as a whole, and that’s a necessity for success in any future career. When it comes to your child’s success, maybe talk isn’t so cheap after all.

Gut bacteria may offer a treatment for autism

Autism affects people’s social behaviour and communication, and may impair their ability to learn things. All this is well known. Less familiar to most, though, are the gastrointestinal problems associated with the condition. The intestines of children with autism often harbour bacteria different from those in the guts of the neurotypical. As a consequence, such people are more than three times as likely as others are to develop serious alimentary-canal disorders at some point in their lives.

Unfortunate though this is, the upset gut floras of autistic people are seen by some investigators as the key to the condition—and to treating it. Recent research has shown that altering animals’ intestinal bacteria can have dramatic effects on their nervous systems. Ameliorating autism by tinkering with the ecology of the gut might thus be a fruitful line of inquiry.

A study just published in Neuron suggests that it is. In it, Mauro Costa-Mattioli of Baylor College of Medicine, in Texas, and his colleagues demonstrate that introducing a particular bacterium into the guts of mice that display autistic symptoms can abolish some of those symptoms. The bug in question is Lactobacillus reuteri. It is commonly found in healthy digestive systems and helps regulate acidity levels. And it is also easily obtainable for use as a probiotic from health-food shops.

.. Clearly, autism in people is more complicated than a mere willingness to associate with others. And getting too excited about a mouse trial is usually a mistake. But in Dr Costa-Mattioli’s view his results, which have been replicated in part by Evan Elliot’s laboratory in Bar-Ilan University, Israel, would justify embarking on at least preliminary trials intended to determine whether L. reuteri has positive effects on people with autism, and might thus be worth pursuing.

Others agree. Sarkis Mazmanian of the California Institute of Technology works in the same area. He says of these results: “I think the bar is now very low for getting this research moved on to human trials since most people already have these bacteria inside them and we know there are few, if any, safety or toxicity issues.”

The Exercise That Helps Mental Health Most

Certain fitness routines do more to help avoid depression, stress or other emotional problems, new research finds

Researchers looking at the link between physical activity and mental health found that team sports fared best, followed by cycling, either on the road or a stationary bike.

.. It found that physical activity typically performed in groups, such as team sports and gym classes, provided greater benefits than running or walking.

.. People who played team sports like soccer and basketball reported 22.3% fewer poor mental-health days than those who didn’t exercise. Those who ran or jogged fared 19% better, while those who did household chores 11.8% better.

.. In a secondary analysis, the researchers found that yoga and tai chi—grouped into a category called recreational sports in the original analysis—had a 22.9% reduction in poor mental-health days. (Recreational sports included everything from yoga to golf to horseback riding.)

.. The researchers also found that those who exercise between 30 and 60 minutes had the best mental health, with 45 minutes the optimal duration. Exercising three to five times a week correlated with fewer dark days.