This shows a child looking out a window.
While most of the results were expected or unsurprising, one area that stood out to Ahn was education. Credit: Neuroscience News

Child Adversity’s Impact on Cognition and Mental Health

Summary: A new study reveals a direct correlation between adversities faced in childhood and adulthood with later psychiatric and cognitive decline. Analyzing data from nearly 3,500 individuals over 24 years, the study found that even a single instance of childhood adversity can heighten the risk of mental illness, while adult adversities are linked to both psychiatric disorders and cognitive deterioration.

Intriguingly, the research also highlighted the protective role of education, showing that higher educational attainment can mitigate the negative impacts of adversity. This comprehensive study underscores the importance of addressing and discussing stress and adversity throughout life stages, emphasizing education’s potential to foster resilience against long-term health challenges.

Key Facts:

  1. Widespread Impact of Adversity: Nearly 40% of individuals experience childhood adversity, with the rate soaring to almost 80% for adulthood adversity, significantly affecting mental and cognitive health.
  2. Protective Power of Education: Higher levels of education were associated with fewer experiences of adversity and diminished the correlation between childhood adversity and cognitive impairment.
  3. Urgent Call for Awareness and Intervention: The findings advocate for increased awareness of stress’s long-term effects and proactive discussions in clinical, educational, and familial settings to mitigate adversity’s impact.

Source: Saint Louis University

Saint Louis University associate professor of health management and policy in the College for Public Health and Social Justice, SangNam Ahn, Ph.D., recently published a paper in Journal of Clinical Psychology that examines the relationship between childhood adversity, and psychiatric decline as well as adult adversity and psychiatric and cognitive decline.

His team discovered that just one instance of adversity in childhood can increase cases of mental illness later in life, and adverse events in adults can lead to a greater chance of both mental illness and cognitive decline later in life. 

“Life is very complicated, very dynamic,” Ahn said.

“I really wanted to highlight the importance of looking into the lasting health effect of adversity, not only childhood but also adulthood adversity on health outcomes, especially physical health and psychiatric and cognitive health. There have been other studies before, but this is one of the first that looks into these issues comprehensively.” 

Ahn, along with his team of researchers, examined data from more nearly 3500 individuals over the course of 24 years. The group took the longitudinal data and evaluated it using a list of lifetime potential traumatic events.

The research team included childhood adversity events such as moving due to financial difficulties, family requiring financial help, a parent experiencing unemployment, trouble with law enforcement before the age of 18, repeating school, physical abuse and parental abuse of drugs or alcohol.

Adulthood adversity events included the death of a child, the death of a spouse, experiencing a natural disaster after age 17, firing a weapon in combat, a partner abusing drugs or alcohol, being a victim of a physical attack after age 17, a spouse or child battling a serious illness, receiving Medicaid or food stamps and experiencing unemployment. 

The study determined that nearly 40 percent of all individuals experienced a form of childhood adversity, while that number climbed to nearly 80 percent for adulthood adversity.

Those who experienced childhood adversity were also 17 percent more likely to experience adulthood adversity. Only 13 percent of individuals sampled reported two or more forms of childhood adversity, while 52 percent of adults experienced two or more forms of adult adversity. 

In cases of either childhood adversity or adulthood adversity, researchers found individuals who experienced adversity were also more likely to experience anxiety and depression later in life, and in the case of adulthood adversity, were also more likely to experience cognitive decline later in life. 

Individuals with one childhood adversity experience saw a five percent higher chance of suffering from anxiety, and those with two or more childhood adversity experiences had 26 percent and 10 percent higher chances of depression and anxiety, respectively. Individuals who experienced two adulthood adversities had a 24 percent higher chance of depression, while also experiencing a three percent cognitive decline later in life. 

While most of the results were expected or unsurprising, one area that stood out to Ahn was education. Those individuals studied who reported higher levels of education saw a reduction in the number of adversity experiences. Ahn hopes to study this avenue more to learn how education may be able to mitigate or prevent these declines. 

“Before including education, there was a significant association between childhood adversity and cognitive impairment,” Ahn said.

“But when including education as a covariate, that significant association disappeared. Interesting. So there were important implications here. Education and attending school, people could be better off even if they were exposed to childhood adversity. They’re likely to learn positive coping mechanisms, which may help avoid  relying on unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as smoking or excessive drinking or drug use.

“Education is quite important in terms of health outcomes,” Ahn added.

“If I am educated, I’m likely to get a better job, have a higher income, and live in areas with less crime. I’m likely to buy gym membership or regularly exercise. I’m likely to shop at Whole Foods and get proper nutrition. All of which help combat these adversities we hinted at in the study. So the education and health outcomes are already closely related, and that is what we saw in our study.”

Ahn also encourages clinicians and everyday people alike to discuss their stress. Clinicians can learn more about their patients and have a better approach when it comes to their physical and mental health, while others could potentially relate to shared experiences. But through awareness and recognition, these adverse experiences could potentially have less serious, lasting effects. 

“Public health is very interested in stress,” Ahn said.

“But we’re still examining how daily stress impacts our long term health outcomes. So to see the effects here in the study, I want people to pay attention to their stress and proactively address it.

“Clinicians should have deep discussions with their patients about their stress and mental state. And those topics can be approached in other areas too, like the classroom or the dining room table. The more we are aware of stress and discuss our stress, the better we can handle any adversities we find in life.”

About this psychology and mental health research news

Author: Jacob Born
Source: Saint Louis University
Contact: Jacob Born – Saint Louis University
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Lifetime adversity predicts depression, anxiety, and cognitive impairment in a nationally representative sample of older adults in the United States” by SangNam Ahn et al. Journal of Clinical Psychology


Lifetime adversity predicts depression, anxiety, and cognitive impairment in a nationally representative sample of older adults in the United States


Although life stress and adversity are well-known risk factors for mental health problems and cognitive impairment among older adults, limited research has comprehensively examined the impact of both childhood and adulthood adversity on psychiatric and cognitive impairment symptoms over a prolonged period. To address this issue, we investigated how lifetime adversity exposure is related to symptoms of depression, anxiety, and cognitive impairment in a nationally representative, longitudinal sample of older adults in the United States.


We analyzed data from the Health and Retirement Study (1992–2016). The sample included 3496 individuals (59.9% female), aged ≥64 years old (Mage = 76.0 ± 7.6 years in 2016). We used the individual-level panel data and ordinary least squares regressions to estimate associations between childhood and adulthood adversities, and later-life depression, anxiety, and cognitive impairment.


Many participants experienced a significant early life (38%) or adulthood (79%) stressor. Moreover, experiencing one childhood adversity (vs. none) was associated with a 17.4% increased risk of adulthood adversity. Finally, as hypothesized, childhood adversity exposure was related to experiencing more depression and anxiety symptoms in later life, whereas adulthood stressor exposure predicted more cognitive impairment as well as more depression and anxiety symptoms.


These findings demonstrate significant associations between lifetime adversity and symptoms of depression, anxiety, and cognitive impairment in older adults. Screening for lifetime stressors may thus help healthcare professionals and policymakers identify individuals who could potentially benefit from interventions designed to reduce stress and enhance resilience.

Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.