Famine and hunger are worldwide concerns. Nations that have faced droughts, economic hardship, and other conditions that affect access to nutritionally balanced meals have high rates of childhood malnutrition. In previous years, malnutrition has been linked to a host of medical and psychological problems, such as mood problems, antisocial tendencies, and academic difficulties. Protein and iron deficiencies have also been found to increase the risk of attention deficits and hyperactivity. But in recent years, advances in outreach programs have provided rehabilitation to children who were once malnourished. These efforts have significantly improved the physical well-being of these at-risk children, yet there is less information about the long-term effects of childhood malnourishment.
To address this void, Janini R. Galler of the Judge Baker Children’s Center at the Harvard Medical School in Boston recently analyzed data from a 40-year-long study on malnourished children. The subjects were Barbados-born children who had been hospitalized for malnutrition in the first year of life. Galler compared these subjects with other children with no history of malnutrition and found that the malnourished children, even though they had been nutritionally rehabilitated, had rates of inattention that were four times that of the nutritionally stable children. She also discovered that the malnourished children had higher levels of cognitive impairment, academic difficulties, and motor-skill problems than the control subjects.
The most striking findings of this study were that attention problems were persistent throughout the 40 years. Specifically, children who had been identified as attention impaired by teachers in adolescence continued to exhibit attention deficits into adulthood, according to self-reports. Galler believes these findings are critical to improving the quality of life of children who experience malnutrition. Given that malnourishment is commonly found in children with exposure to poverty, maternal depression, and economic hardship, early interventions could help these children avoid future problems with psychological distress, learning problems, mood issues, and drug and alcohol dependence, issues that often co-occur in adults with attention deficits. Galler added, “As more children survive infantile malnutrition, with improved access to medical care and rehabilitation, the lifelong consequences for behavior and mental health outcomes are of growing concern.”
Galler, J. R., Bryce, C. P., Zichlin, M. L., Fitzmaurice, G., Eaglesfield, G. D., Waber, D. P. (2012). Infant malnutrition is associated with persisting attention deficits in middle adulthood. Journal of Nutrition, 142.4, 788-794.
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