Geographical Variation In Attention Capacity In European Adolescents

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Imagine what cognitive functions are required for comprehension and learning during adolescence? Attention is one of those crucial capacities that adolescents need for comprehension and learning processes in and out of the school setting.

Attention is the behavioral and cognitive process of selectively concentrating on one aspect of the environment while inhibiting distractors. In fact, weak attention skills during adolescence may have lifelong consequences on academic performance, social skills, and employment. What is more important, these lifelong attention problems are also characteristic of several neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or Williams syndrome, among others. In contrast, higher levels of attention capacity have been related to academic and occupational success. Thus, keep in mind the importance of developing your attention capacity when you have the time to do it.

Unfortunately, we do not have a standardized program even across the European Union to assess the attention capacity of adolescents. However, we have the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) that was designed to systematically assess academic skills in three main common areas (i.e., Mathematics, Reading, and Sciences Literacy) of 15-year-old students worldwide. The published 2015 PISA results showed that adolescents from countries outside Europe achieved lower scores than those from Europe. Within the European context, adolescents from center-north Europe achieved higher scores than those from the south of Europe.

In this geographical framework, we previously found that adolescents from center-north Europe were also more active, fit, and leaner than their peers from the south of Europe. On the other hand, adolescents from the south of Europe have a healthier diet, which is related with better cognition, than those in the center-north. Since several health-related factors such as physical activity, diet, fitness or fatness have shown to influence attention capacity in adolescents; those differences raise the question of whether they could lead to differences in attention capacity as well.

Our work aims at answering questions such as whether attention capacity differs between adolescents from different European regions and if so, which factors (i.e., socioeconomic status, fitness, fatness, or quality of diet) may explain those discrepancies, said Professor Francisco B. Ortega last author of the paper and group leader of the PROFITH (PROmoting FITness and Health through Physical activity) research group from the University of Granada.

The HELENA (Healthy Lifestyle in Europe by Nutrition in Adolescence) Study performed in European adolescents provides a good opportunity to explore these hypotheses. The total HELENA population consisted of 3528 adolescents from 10 cities in nine European countries. However, this study included 627 European adolescents (54% girls), aged 12.5-17.5 years, since attention capacity was assessed only in six cities, in which we administered the d2 Test of Attention. Figure 1 detailed the included cities: two cities from the south of Europe: Athens in Greece and Zaragoza in Spain, and four cities from the center of Europe: Dortmund in Germany, Lille in France, Pécs in Hungary, and Vienna in Austria.

Irene Esteban-Cornejo, the lead author of the paper highlighted that adolescents from the south of Europe had a significantly higher score in attention capacity compared with adolescents from central Europe independently sociodemographic factors (i.e., age, sex and socioeconomic indicators) and health-related factors such as body mass index, cardiorespiratory fitness, and diet quality index. These differences should be taken into account by educational institutions when promoting new approaches for putting into the practice student’s capacities.

These findings are described in the article entitled “Attention capacity in European adolescents: role of different health-related factors. The HELENA study, published in the European Journal of Pediatrics. This work was led by Irene Esteban-Cornejo & Francisco B. Ortega from the University of Granada.

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