Holocaust exposure and late-life cognitive performance in men with coronary heart disease

J Psychiatr Res. 2021 Feb;134:1-7. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2020.12.044. Epub 2020 Dec 19.


Background: Holocaust victims experienced extreme physical and mental stress that could lead to prolonged deficits in psychological and physiological well-being. We aimed to examine whether exposure to Holocaust conditions is associated with cognitive function and decline in a sample of old male adults with coronary heart disease (CHD).

Methods: The sample included 346 individuals with CHD who participated in a clinical trial in 1990-1997 (mean age 56.7 ± 6.5 y). During 2004-2008 (mean age 71.8 ± 6.5 y) and 2011-2013 (mean age 77.1 ± 6.4 y) participants underwent computerized cognitive assessments. Exposure to Holocaust conditions was based on self-report at the second assessment. Linear regression and mixed-effect models were conducted to evaluate the associations between Holocaust survivorship and subsequent cognitive performance and rate of cognitive decline.

Results: Forty-Three participants (12%) survived concentration camps/ghettos, 69 (20%) were Holocaust survivors who escaped concentration camps/ghettos, and 234 (68%) were not Holocaust survivors. After adjustment for potential confounders, concentration camp/ghetto survivors had poorer global cognitive performance and poorer attention (β = -3.90; 95%CI: 7.11;-0.68 and β = -4.11; 95%CI: 7.83;-0.38, respectively) compared to individuals who were not exposed to Holocaust conditions. Additionally, participants who reported being at concentration camps/ghettoes had increased cognitive decline in global performance and executive function (β = -0.19; 95%CI: 0.37;-0.008 and β = -0.29; 95%CI: 0.53;-0.06, respectively) compared to participants who were not Holocaust survivors. Lastly, those who were Holocaust survivors but not in concentration camps/ghettos had greater decline in attention (β = -0.11; 95%CI: 0.21;-0.01).

Discussion: Exposure to Holocaust conditions in early-life may be linked with poorer cognitive function and greater cognitive decline decades later in old-adults with CHD.

Keywords: Cognitive function; Coronary heart disease; Holocaust; Risk factors.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Cognition
  • Concentration Camps*
  • Coronary Disease* / complications
  • Coronary Disease* / epidemiology
  • Holocaust*
  • Humans
  • Jews
  • Male
  • Middle Aged