Economic conditions at the time of birth predict cognitive ability late in life

Severe economic recessions are known to adversely affect population health, and it is also well known that exposure to adverse stimuli during early stages of life can hinder development. The question of whether economic-societal conditions at the time of birth, such as poverty brought about by economic downturns and wellbeing by economic booms, can impact cognitive functions later in life is a highly interesting one that has been addressed relatively little. Due to large in-depth surveys carried out in the 2000s across multiple European countries among the aging population, it has become possible to address this important question.

In their recent study, Doblhammer et al. (2013) examined whether economic cycle at the time of birth could predict poor cognitive functioning at older age. They specifically inspected whether cycles in economic indicators during the first half of the 20th Century (excluding war years) would predict cognitive ability as assessed with five interview measures, on orientation to time, recall, delayed recall, verbal fluency, and numerical ability. Multiple potentially intervening factors were carefully controlled for in the analyses. The results showed that economic downturns at the time of birth significantly predicted poorer cognitive function in the elderly. While it is naturally difficult to pinpoint causal factors in this type of study design (the authors mention malnutrition and psychological stress/insecurity within families as possible explanations) these results nonetheless bear high societal significance by demonstrating that economical factors can have lasting consequences on cognitive function.  

Reference: Doblhammer G, van den Berg GJ, Fritze T. Economic conditions at the time of birth and cognitive abilities late in life: evidence from ten European countries. PLoS ONE (2013) 8: e74915. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0074915

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