Adversity’s impact on mental health & cognition

Lifetime adversity linked to depression, anxiety, and cognitive decline in older adults in the US.


Dr. SangNam Ahn, an associate professor at Saint Louis University, published a paper in the Journal of Clinical Psychology. It explores how childhood and adult adversity are linked to psychiatric and cognitive decline. The study found that experiencing adversity during childhood can increase the risk of mental illness in adulthood. Similarly, facing challenges as an adult raises the likelihood of both mental illness and cognitive decline later in Life.

Ahn said, “Life is very complicated, very dynamic. I wanted to highlight the importance of looking into the lasting health effects of adversity, not only in childhood but also in 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 and his colleagues examined data spanning 24 years from over 3500 people. They used longitudinal data to examine life-long traumatic episodes. Financial hardships, parental unemployment, legal issues, repeating school, physical abuse, and parental drug addiction were examples of childhood adversity experiences. 

Events that caused adversity in adulthood included losing a spouse or kid, going through natural catastrophes, fighting, seeing substance abuse in a relationship, being physically attacked, having family members get sick, getting government help, and being unemployed.

The study revealed that nearly 40% of individuals faced childhood adversity, while about 80% experienced hardship in adulthood. Those who encountered childhood adversity were 17% more likely to face adversity in adulthood. Only 13% experienced multiple childhood adversities, compared to 52% facing multiple adult adversities.

Both childhood and adulthood adversity correlated with higher risks of anxiety and depression later in Life. Adults who experienced hardship were also more likely to suffer from cognitive decline. 

Those with one childhood adversity had a 5% higher chance of anxiety, while those with two or more faced 26% and 10% higher cases of depression and anxiety, respectively. Adults facing two adversities had a 24% higher chance of depression and a 3% cognitive decline later in Life.

In the study, lower degrees of adversity were associated with higher levels of schooling. Ahn, who wishes to investigate how education could further avoid or lessen these decreases, was taken aback by this finding. 

Adversity during childhood first demonstrated a strong correlation with cognitive decline. But when education was taken into account, this correlation vanished. People who receive education may be better able to cope and become less dependent on unhealthy habits like smoking or binge drinking.

Education is crucial for health outcomes. It correlates with better jobs, higher income, safer neighborhoods, regular exercise, and healthier diets. These factors help counter the adversities highlighted in the study.

Ahn suggests that both clinicians and individuals should openly discuss stress. Clinicians can better understand their patients’ overall health, while shared experiences can foster empathy among peers. By acknowledging and addressing stress, its long-term effects may be less severe. 

Ahn emphasizes the importance of paying attention to stress and addressing it proactively. Focus discussions should extend beyond clinical settings to everyday conversations, enabling better coping with Life’s challenges.

SangNam Ahn’s study shows a strong connection between challenging experiences in childhood and adulthood and later problems with mental health and thinking. This highlights the need to acknowledge and deal with tough times early on to help prevent lasting effects on mental health and thinking ability later in Life.

Journal reference:

  1. SangNam Ahn, Seonghoon Kim, et al., Lifetime adversity predicts depression, anxiety, and cognitive impairment in a nationally representative sample of older adults in the United States. Journal of Clinical Psychology. DOI: 10.1002/jclp.23642.