The Impact of Childhood Cognitive Problems On Their Mental Health Later In Life

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In their first five years, children grow and develop quickly in all four domains of development—physical motor, language and communication, cognitive, and social and emotional components.

Focusing on the cognitive part of a child’s development, cognitive skills are crucial to developing in the early years of life because they aid in the brain’s ability to think, read, learn, reason, and understand the connections between concepts. They also assist children in developing their analytical skills. In conclusion, a child can profit from developing their cognitive skills both inside and outside the classroom.

Early tests of cognitive functioning correlate with subsequent cognitive competency, with IQ scores at 8–9 years of age having long-term effects on how the brain functions in the future. The latter claim is supported by a study from the University of Birmingham that show how childhood cognitive impairments might affect the emergence of mental health disorders later in life. This article will discuss some of the study’s significant findings and consequences.

What The Study Entails

Core characteristics of mental diseases include cognitive deficiencies, which are crucial in predicting long-term prognosis. Children’s cognitive development occurs along with the emergence of psychopathological symptoms. However, cognitive issues may manifest earlier than clear-cut symptoms linked to mood or behavior, possibly several years earlier. For instance, subsyndromal psychotic experiences in adulthood are linked to cognitive abnormalities in childhood.

However, the extent to which cognitive deficiencies in childhood precede various mental problems in adolescence and young adulthood is unknown. Furthermore, no research has examined the prospective and particular relationships between young people’s psychopathological symptoms and their early cognitive development.

It is crucial to comprehend how mental diseases manifest, whether certain pathways are linked to the emergence of particular mental disorders, and the degree to which this emergence is modifiable.

To address this vacuum, the researchers of the study published in the JAMA Network Open looked into whether certain cognitive areas in childhood had a distinguishing relationship with particular psychopathological symptoms in young individuals. 

Given that executive function is one of the most frequently observed deficits among individuals with schizophrenia throughout various stages of the disease, they hypothesized that working memory and inhibition would be associated with psychotic experiences. That attention would be associated with depression, BPD, and hypomania.

The study was the first to look at specific relationships between cognitive deficiencies in childhood and several psychopathological disorders in young individuals over a prolonged period of time.

The researchers studied data from the first UK cohort of 13,988 people born between April 1991 and December 1992. Based on their data, the team identified several significant and precise connections between early cognitive impairments and later mental health disorders, including:

  • The onset of depression at age 17–18 and borderline personality disorder (BPD) symptoms at age 11–12 are preceded by deficits in sustained attention in eight-year-olds;
  • Inhibition problems in eight-year-olds were linked to psychotic events in 17–18-year-olds; and
  • Deficits in working memory at age 10 were linked to hypomania at ages 22–23.

It is consistent with similar deficiencies in adult BPD patients connected to challenges adhering to treatment plans; deficits in sustained attention at age eight are associated with BPD symptoms at age eleven or twelve. Previous research also points to a strong correlation between childhood Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) symptoms and adult BPD, suggesting that ADHD may serve as a risk factor for BPD.

The findings also support the idea that early lack of inhibition precedes later psychotic experiences because a deficiency in inhibitory control characterizes schizophrenia and other psychotic diseases.

When they looked for co-occurring psychopathological problems, the correlation between working memory deficiencies in childhood and hypomania in young adults vanished, indicating that more research is required.

These findings imply that diverse psychopathological symptoms in young adults are related to particular cognitive deficiencies in childhood. These findings also raise the possibility of using early cognitive therapies in childhood to alter or lessen the likelihood of developing later psychopathological symptoms.

The study’s findings are particularly relevant because at least 10% of children and adolescents worldwide have a mental condition, which places a heavy strain on the global health system. 75% of adult mental problems have their beginnings in childhood or adolescence.

Furthermore, bipolar disorder, depression, and psychosis frequently start in adolescence and last into young adulthood; these conditions may be connected to abnormalities in adolescent development brought on by behavioral, biological, or environmental factors.

Determining which risk factors precede these illnesses and how they relate to the key characteristics of mental disorders like psychosis and mood disorders is vital for studying the genesis of mental disorders at these early stages. Additionally, psychiatric diseases frequently involve cognitive deficiencies, ranging from impaired language and social cognition to decreased attention and working memory. They drastically reduce the quality of life and may even exist before serious mental illnesses by several years.

Thanks to studies like these, we can comprehend the connection between cognitive impairments in childhood and the development of mental health concerns later in life. We are one step closer to developing efficient interventions that could lessen their influence on a person’s life.

Journal Reference

Morales-Muñoz, I., Upthegrove, R., Mallikarjun, P. K., Broome, M. R., & Marwaha, S. (2021). Longitudinal associations between cognitive deficits in childhood and psychopathological symptoms in adolescence and young adulthood. JAMA Network Open, 4(4). https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.4724 

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