Child Neglect and Maltreatment and Childhood-to-Adulthood Cognition and Mental Health in a Prospective Birth Cohort

J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2016 Jan;55(1):33-40.e3. doi: 10.1016/j.jaac.2015.10.012. Epub 2015 Oct 30.


Objective: Life-long adverse effects of childhood maltreatment on mental health are well established, but effects on child-to-adulthood cognition and related educational attainment have yet to be examined in the general population. We aimed to establish whether different forms of child maltreatment are associated with poorer cognition and educational qualifications in childhood/adolescence and whether associations persist to midlife, parallel to associations for mental health.

Method: Cognitive abilities at ages 7, 11, and 16 years (math, reading, and general intellectual ability) and 50 years (immediate/delayed memory, verbal fluency, processing speed) were assessed using standardized tests, and qualifications by age 42 were self-reported. Information on childhood maltreatment (neglect and abuse: sexual, physical, psychological, witnessed), cognition, and mental health was available for 8,928 participants in the 1958 British Birth Cohort.

Results: We found a strong association of child neglect with cognitive deficits from childhood to adulthood. To illustrate, the most neglected 6% of the population (score ≥4) had a 0.60 (95% CI = 0.56-0.68) SD lower cognitive score at age 16 and a 0.28 (95% CI = 0.20-0.36) SD deficit at age 50 years relative to the non-neglected participants (score = 0) after adjustment for confounding factors and mental health, and they also had increased risk of poor qualifications (i.e., none/low versus degree-level). Childhood neglect and all forms of abuse were associated with poorer child-to-adulthood mental health, but abuse was mostly unrelated to cognitive abilities.

Conclusion: The study provides novel data that child neglect is associated with cognitive deficits in childhood/adolescence and decades later in adulthood, independent of mental health, and highlights the lifelong burden of child neglect on cognitive abilities and mental health.

Keywords: childhood maltreatment; cognition; epidemiology; longitudinal; mental health.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Adult Survivors of Child Abuse / psychology*
  • Child
  • Child Abuse / psychology*
  • Cognition Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Cognition Disorders / etiology*
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Linear Models
  • Male
  • Mental Health
  • Middle Aged
  • Prospective Studies
  • Risk Factors
  • Self Report
  • United Kingdom