Early adversity causes long-term harm

8 Feb 2023: A new study reveals how early adversity causes long-term harm to the mental health and cognitive functioning of young people.

Early-life adversity – such as poverty, illness, family conflict or divorce – has long been linked to mental health difficulties and poorer cognitive functioning as children grow up. A new study from Cambridge University, published today in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, reveals just how much impact such early-childhood adversity can have.

The UK’s huge cohort study

Based on the huge and ongoing Millennium Cohort Study, which has assessed as many as 13,287 children across the UK, Cambridge University reports that its researchers found that early-life adversity is associated with poorer performance on working memory and vocabulary through its impact on mental health across childhood. For example, poorer mental health across ages 3-14 resulting from early-life adversity accounted for 59% of the variance in poorer working memory performance at age 11 and explained 70% of poorer performance in vocabulary at age 14.  

The researchers showed that early-life adversity at age three strongly predicted poorer mental health across ages 3-14, with the association strongest at three but getting progressively weaker over time. In other words, children who experienced early-life adversity were most likely to experience mental health difficulties from age three to age fourteen, although poorer mental health was greater at age 3 than in the later years. This suggests that exposure to early-life adversity at this developmentally sensitive time has a negative long-term impact on mental health.

They also found that decreases in mental health difficulties over time were associated with improvements in working memory and vocabulary. This suggests that if behavioural and psychological difficulties can be addressed when children are young, the effects of early-life adversity on later cognition could be alleviated. This finding has important implications for clinicians, educators and parents involved in interventions.

This reinforces the need for early interventions to give children the best possible life-outcomes.

Dr Tochukwu Nweze, MRC CBSU
Build resilience to break the pattern

“Our findings suggest that early-life adversity can lead to prolonged periods of poor mental health, which in turn may have lasting effects on cognitive performance, such as working memory and vocabulary,” said lead author Dr Tochukwu Nweze from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit.

“We already know that poor mental health and cognition are associated with numerous behavioural problems which affect life quality and satisfaction. This reinforces the need for early interventions to give children the best possible life-outcomes.”

The researchers say that, at a time of rising mental health challenges among teenagers and young people, made worse by contemporary risk factors such as conflicts, pandemics and climate change, educators and clinicians need to focus on building resilience in children who have experienced early-life adversity.

“In this way, we can hope to break the self-sustaining mental health difficulties faced by individuals who have experienced early-life adversity,” said Dr Nweze.