Early life adversity, biological adaptation, and human capital: evidence from an interrupted malaria control program in Zambia

J Health Econ. 2021 Dec:80:102532. doi: 10.1016/j.jhealeco.2021.102532. Epub 2021 Sep 29.


Growing evidence from evolutionary biology demonstrates how early life shocks trigger physiological changes designed to be adaptive in challenging environments. We examine the implications of one type of physiological adaptation - immunity formation - for human capital accumulation. Using variation in early life malaria risk generated by an interrupted disease control program in Zambia, we show that exposure to infectious diseases during the first two years of life can reduce the harmful effects of malaria exposure on cognitive development during the preschool years. These findings suggest a non-linear and trajectory-dependent relationship between early life adversity and human capital formation.

Keywords: Biological responses; Cognition; Early childhood; Education; Human capital; Immunity; Malaria.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Biological
  • Adverse Childhood Experiences*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cognition
  • Humans
  • Malaria* / epidemiology
  • Malaria* / prevention & control
  • Zambia / epidemiology