Childhood Stressors, Relationship Quality, and Cognitive Health in Later Life

J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2022 Jul 5;77(7):1361-1371. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbac007.


Objectives: The rising prevalence of cognitive impairment, Alzheimer's disease, and related disorders signals the need for a better understanding of how social factors may affect cognitive health for millions of Americans. Drawing from cumulative inequality theory, we aim to understand the implications of a stressful childhood on social relationships and cognitive health in later life.

Methods: This study utilizes longitudinal data (2006-2016) from the Health and Retirement Study to examine pathways, both direct and indirect through social relationships in adulthood, from childhood stressors to cognitive health trajectories over time.

Results: Respondents reporting a greater number of stressors in childhood had worse cognitive health over time, but those negative effects were not as steep as time progressed. Early-life stressors are also associated with less social support and more social strain in adulthood which, in turn, are associated with initial cognitive health. Finally, pathway analyses confirm that childhood stressors are indirectly associated with initial cognitive health through social strain and social support.

Discussion: Findings reveal that a stressful childhood creates chains of risks that have lifelong implications for cognitive health, both directly and indirectly by creating obstacles for developing healthy and supportive social relationships.

Keywords: Cognitive impairment; Early-life stressors; Social relationships.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cognition
  • Cognitive Dysfunction* / epidemiology
  • Cognitive Dysfunction* / etiology
  • Health Status*
  • Humans
  • Retirement
  • Social Support