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Happy childhood, happy old age?

How lifestyle factors of individuals in their mid- to later adulthood contribute to future cognitive decline has been studied abundantly. However, there is a paucity of research on the same prediction but based on factors that act during childhood, for example, the socioeconomic environment surrounding children. It has been posited that this environment may disrupt brain development to such a degree as to contribute to cognitive decline in later life. Of course, one reason why studying such factors is fiendishly hard is the necessity to collect and analyze data that span multiple decades, a task that is not trivial to perform reliably.

We were lucky to strike a collaboration with colleagues from the Lothian Birth Cohort, a Scottish study out of Edinburgh and surrounding areas, that did just such a thing. We report this work from Stéphanie Maurice, Alisone Hébert, Valérie Turcotte, Olivier Potvin, Carol Hudon and Simon Duchesne in a recent publication in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. Using their data, our study examined the relationship between childhood socioeconomic status and cognitive decline in 519 Scottish individuals born in 1936 and evaluated when they were 70 and 77 years old. Childhood socioeconomic status was estimated by measuring parental educational attainment, father’s occupational status, household characteristics, and a measure of global childhood socioeconomic status.

Our initial idea - or hypothesis - was that the childhood socioeconomic status would be predictive of cognitive decline, by itself. While our results indicated that participants who had less educated mothers did show an increase in cognitive decline into older age, this effect disappeared when taking into consideration adult socioeconomic status. Hence, this study provides new evidence that childhood socioeconomic status alone is not strongly associated with cognitive decline, or at least its effect can be mitigated during adulthood.

Our study highlights the importance of investigating in more depth the complex life course psychosocial pathways linking childhood socioeconomic status, adult socioeconomic status, and cognitive decline by comparing different life course models among individuals. New knowledge of this kind is critical to improving population health by identifying life span stages in which interventions might be effective in preventing cognitive decline. In this way, one could envision that public policies, when applied sufficiently early in life, could have benefits that would last for a long time.


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