Early-Life Adversity: Impact on Childhood Mental Health and Cognition


New research published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry indicates that early-life adversity—such as homelessness, parental violence, or longstanding illness in the family—may lead to mental health challenges, which in turn have adverse consequences for the development of cognitive abilities during childhood.

In the study of 13,287 children in the UK, adversity at age 3 years was strongly associated with poorer mental health across all ages from 3 to 14 years. Also, adversity predicted poorer working memory at age 11 and vocabulary at age 14. The impact of adversity on cognition was partially due to its negative effects on mental health during development.

“Our findings not only highlight the deleterious effects of adversity on mental health and cognitive abilities but also reveal one of the mechanisms through which these effects manifest and persist over a long period of time. Prolonged periods of poor mental health as a result of early-life adversity, may have lasting or partially cumulative effects on cognitive abilities of working memory and vocabulary,” said the lead author of the paper, Tochukwu Nweze, PhD, a recent graduate of University of Cambridge. “At a time of rising mental health challenges among teenagers and young people, exacerbated by contemporary environmental risk factors, we suggest that educators in collaboration with clinicians could foster greater resilience by attempting to break this vicious cycle of persistent and self-sustaining mental health difficulties faced by individuals who experienced early adversity through some sort of deliberate and targeted clinical intervention.”

URL upon publication: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jcpp.13757

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