Adversity in early life impacts cognitive function in late adulthood

New findings suggest that allostatic load mediates the association between early life adversity and global cognition, as well as executive function. This research was published in the scientific journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

“I was personally interested in this subject because of my lived experience of having a grandparent with Alzheimer’s disease. This was the catalyst for my interest in understanding modifiable factors that can preserve cognitive health with aging,” said study author Danielle D’Amico (@daniellendamico), a doctoral candidate at Metropolitan University of Toronto.

“Throughout my studies, I have been interested in life cycle models of cognitive aging, as more and more research shows that age-related cognitive decline and dementia risk can be prevented and detected by decades before adulthood I am particularly interested in early childhood, as childhood and adolescence are a critical period of brain development that sets the tone for cognitive aging throughout life.

Cognitive function has implications for well-being, such as quality of life, independence, and risk of developing neurodegenerative disease. Chronic stress can negatively impact cognitive function; in particular, at the beginning of life, the nervous system is particularly sensitive to the effects of chronic stress. However, the mechanism by which chronic stress influences cognitive function is unclear.

One possible explanation is allostatic load, which “refers to multisystem physiological dysregulation due to cumulative wear and tear from chronic stress.” Previous studies have linked adversity in early life to higher allostatic load in adults, as well as lower cognitive function, suggesting that it may mediate the association between early adversity of life and cognitive function later in life.

A total sample of 1541 participants was included in this research. Participants were drawn from the National Quarantine Survey of the United States (MIDUS) conducted between 2004 and 2006. Participants provided sociographic and health-related information, such as gender, age, level education, race, medical diagnoses, and medication use (eg, high blood pressure, use of antidepressants in the past month).

They answered numerous questions assessing perceived socioeconomic position, current levels of physical activity, substance use (i.e., alcohol and cigarettes), and childhood trauma ( i.e. physical/sexual/emotional abuse, physical/emotional neglect). Biological assessments were conducted during an overnight visit to three clinics, for 20 biomarkers “to index the functioning of the neuroendocrine, immune, metabolic and cardiovascular systems.”

Seven domains of cognitive function were measured via various batteries of neurocognitive tasks; these domains included immediate and delayed verbal episodic memory, working memory span, verbal fluency, inductive reasoning, processing speed, and attention shift.

“Adversity experienced early in life is associated with poorer cognitive health in middle and later life,” D’Amico told PsyPost. “This relationship may be explained by biological dysregulation due to chronic stress that accumulates in the body over time, otherwise known as allostatic load. In the present study, these effects were only apparent for the executive functioning (higher-order processes like problem solving and multitasking), but not for memory performance, and effects were seen only in women, not men.

Regarding the limitations of the study, the researcher stated, “Overall, the study sample was relatively healthy with low stress levels, low allostatic load, and good performance on tasks. cognitive. Additionally, the vast majority of the sample self-identified as white, which limits our ability to generalize the findings to other racial and ethnic groups. This is important in aging research because previous research has shown that the risk of cognitive decline and dementia differs between racial and ethnic groups.

D’Amico added: “A further caveat is that the study design was cross-sectional – the measurement of early life adversity, the biomarkers making up the allostatic load score, and cognitive tasks differed. all taken place in the same time frame. This makes it difficult for us to make causal statements about the results. For example, those with lower cognitive performance might have reported less adversity early in life due to lower recall.

Regarding future research, the author said, “The results need to be replicated in other samples to see how the results hold up in different populations. We also want to understand how healthy behaviors can reduce allostatic load and minimize the effects of adversity early in life and cognitive health years later. Based on previous research, these healthy behaviors include physical activity, social engagement, healthy eating, and managing stress through relaxation techniques.

The study, “The mediating role of allostatic load in the relationship between early life adversity and cognitive function throughout adult life,” was authored by Danielle D’Amico, Maya E. Amestoy and Alexandra J. Fiocco.


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