Childhood cognitive skill trajectories and suicide by mid-adulthood: an investigation of the 1958 British Birth Cohort

Psychol Med. 2021 Feb;51(3):400-407. doi: 10.1017/S0033291719003143. Epub 2019 Nov 18.


Background: Poor cognitive abilities and low intellectual quotient (IQ) are associated with an increased risk of suicide attempts and suicide mortality. However, knowledge of how this association develops across the life-course is limited. Our study aims to establish whether individuals who died by suicide by mid-adulthood are distinguishable by their child-to-adolescence cognitive trajectories.

Methods: Participants were from the 1958 British Birth Cohort and were assessed for academic performance at ages 7, 11, and 16 and intelligence at 11 years. Suicides occurring by September 2012 were identified from linked national death certificates. We compared mean mathematics and reading abilities and rate of change across 7-16 years for individuals who died by suicide v. those still alive, with and without adjustment for potential early-life confounding factors. Analyses were based on 14 505 participants.

Results: Fifty-five participants (48 males) had died by suicide by age 54 years. While males who died by suicide did not differ from participants still alive in reading scores at age 7 [effect size (g) = -0.04, p = 0.759], their reading scores had a less steep improvement up to age 16 compared to other participants. Adjustments for early-life confounding factors explained these differences. A similar pattern was observed for mathematics scores. There was no difference between individuals who died by suicide v. participants still alive on intelligence at 11 years.

Conclusions: While no differences in tests of academic performance and IQ were observed, individuals who died by suicide had a less steep improvement in reading abilities over time compared to same-age peers.

Keywords: Academic performance; birth cohort; cognition; cognitive abilities; cohort studies; early-life influences; intelligence; longitudinal study; mathematics; reading; suicide.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Academic Performance / standards*
  • Adolescent
  • Child
  • Cognition
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Intelligence / physiology*
  • Intelligence Tests
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Mathematics
  • Middle Aged
  • Reading
  • Suicide / statistics & numerical data*
  • Suicide, Attempted / statistics & numerical data*
  • United Kingdom / epidemiology