The longterm effects of growing up in a negative environment

In our book, we discuss the complex interaction between nature and nurture. One of the things we explain is that a negative environment has a bigger effect, while a positive environment has a bigger influence on nature. This new Finnish study is another example of this, as the study shows that cumulative adverse psychosocial factors in childhood are associated with worse midlife learning and memory, and specifically, a child’s self-regulation and social adjustment.

From the press release:

A Finnish study coordinated by the Centre for Population Health Research at the University of Turku shows that cumulative adverse psychosocial factors in childhood are associated with worse midlife learning and memory, and specifically child’s self-regulation and social adjustment.

Along with aging population, the prevalence of cognitive deficits is growing. Thus, revealing the role of various exposures beginning from childhood is important in order to bring tools for cognitive health promotion. An adverse psychosocial environment in childhood may harm cognitive development, but the associations for adulthood cognitive function remain obscure. Results from a longitudinal Finnish study show that unfavorable childhood psychosocial factors may link to poorer learning and memory in midlife.

“Previous evidence on adverse psychosocial factors and cognitive outcomes comes mainly from either short-term or retrospective long-term studies focusing on single psychosocial factor or adversity. This study is one of the first prospective longitudinal studies focusing on the associations between multiple childhood psychosocial factors and adulthood cognitive function,” says Doctoral Researcher Amanda Nurmi from the Centre for Population Health Research at the University of Turku and Turku University Hospital.

Cognitive performance was measured at the age of 34-49 years. Of over 2,000 participants with cognitive function data, 1,191 also had complete data on childhood psychosocial factors from childhood. Socioeconomic and emotional environment, parental health behaviours, stressful events, self-regulation, and social adjustment were queried in the baseline. The results suggest that accumulation of unfavorable psychosocial factors in childhood may associate with poorer cognitive function in midlife. Specifically, poor self-regulatory behavior and social adjustment in childhood associated with poorer learning ability and memory approximately 30 years later.

“The results of our study can be leveraged to develop targeted interventions directed towards those families with cumulative adverse psychosocial factors. Interventions towards promoting a better psychosocial environment in childhood might have carry-over associations on cognitive function and thus be reflected also in future generations via parenting attitudes,” Nurmi says.

This study is part of the ongoing national Cardiovascular Risk in Young Finns Study coordinated by the Research Centre of Applied and Preventive Cardiovascular Medicine at the University of Turku. Initially, 3,596 participants have been followed up repeatedly for 31 years for their health, psychosocial, cardiovascular and lifestyle factors from childhood to adulthood.

Abstract of the study:

Objective: An adverse psychosocial environment in childhood may harm cognitive development, but the associations for adulthood cognitive function remain obscure. We tested the hypothesis that adverse childhood psychosocial factors associate with poor cognitive function in midlife by leveraging the prospective data from the Young Finns Study.

Method: At the age of 3–18 years, the participants’ psychosocial factors (socioeconomic and emotional environment, parental health behaviors, stressful events, child’s self-regulatory behavior, and social adjustment) were collected. In addition to the separate psychosocial factors, a score indicating their clustering was created. Cognitive function was measured at the age of 34–49 years with a computerized test addressing learning and memory (N = 1,011), working memory (N = 1,091), sustained attention and information processing (N = 1,071), and reaction and movement time (N = 999).

Results: We observed an inverse association between the accumulation of unfavorable childhood psychosocial factors and poorer learning and memory in midlife (age, sex, education, adulthood smoking, alcohol drinking, and physical activity adjusted β = −0.032, SE = 0.01, p = .009). This association corresponded approximately to the effect of 7 months aging. Specifically, poor self-regulatory behavior (β = −0.074, SE = 0.03, p = .032) and social adjustment in childhood (β = −0.111, SE = 0.03, p = .001) associated with poorer learning ability and memory 30 years later. No associations were found for other cognitive domains.

Conclusions: The findings suggest an association of childhood psychosocial factors with midlife learning ability and memory. If these links are causal, the results highlight the importance of a child’s self-regulation and social adjustment as plausible determinants for adulthood cognitive health.

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