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Long term effects of early adversity on cognitive function


Aims: To investigate long term effects of early adverse circumstances on cognitive function.

Methods: Associations between early material home circumstances, parental divorce, maternal management and understanding, and cognitive function in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood were analysed using multiple linear regression, controlling for sex, parental SES, and birth order in 1339 males and females from the MRC National Survey of Health and Development.

Results: Early adverse circumstances were strongly associated with lower cognitive ability in childhood and adolescence, and were detectable on measures of verbal ability, memory, and speed and concentration in midlife. However, these long term effects were mostly explained by the effects of adversity on childhood or adolescent cognitive ability or by differences in educational attainment and adult social class. An exception was the effect of poor material home conditions on visual search speed at 53 years, which was maintained after controlling for adolescent ability, as well as further control for educational attainment, adult social class, physical growth, cigarette smoking, and affective state. There was no evidence of more rapid decline in memory and psychomotor function across middle age in those exposed to early adversity.

Conclusions: The effect of early adversity on cognitive function tracks across the life course at least as far as middle age, although there was little evidence from this study of effect amplification over this interval. Nevertheless, in view of the persistence of child poverty in the industrialised world, these findings give cause for concern.

  • ageing
  • birth cohort
  • cognition
  • early adversity
  • life course

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