“Poor Brain Health” Predicts Future Social Costs, Study Says

A small group of children with what researchers call “poor brain health” ended up accounting for a huge portion of social costs as adults, according to a new study from New Zealand.

The idea of whether the events of childhood can predict or explain future events has gained traction in recent years thanks to the popularization of the Adverse Childhood Experiences study and other work that links lifelong health outcomes to experiences early in life.

But researchers at Duke University and the University of Otago in New Zealand suggest that the role of childhood experiences in poor outcomes later in life may still be underestimated.

In a study published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, researchers drew on data collected from the Dunedin Longitudinal Study, work that has tracked more than a thousand Kiwis born in 1972 and 1973 over the course of 38 years.

They hoped to determine whether “economically burdensome outcomes” that some adults faced later in life — such as likelihood of receiving welfare benefits, fatherless families or involvement with the criminal-justice system — could be predicted as a result of early childhood risk factors.

In the study, researchers collected medical records and responses from survey participants and combined them with government administrative databases and electronic medical records.

In looking back at the Dunedin survey, here’s what the researchers found:

A segment comprising 22 percent of the cohort accounted for 36 percent of the cohort’s injury insurance claims; 40 percent of excess obese kilograms; 54 percent of cigarettes smoked; 57 percent of hospital nights; 66 percent of welfare benefits; 77 percent of fatherless child-rearing; 78 percent of prescription fills; and 81 percent of criminal convictions.

This group was found to have been more likely to have experienced one of four risk factors during their first decade of life: “growing up in a socioeconomically deprived family, exposure to maltreatment, low IQ and poor self-control.”

Overall, brain health was a leading predictor for poor life outcomes in the study. Researchers found that assessments of brain health at 3 years of age helped suggest which children would be more likely to incur social costs in New Zealand.

The article highlights the importance of early-childhood interventions and also interrogates the obligation of society to offer equal opportunities to all: “[T]he most costly adults in our cohort started the race of life from a starting block somewhere behind the rest, and while carrying a heavy handicap in brain health.”

To read the study, click here.

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