Infant Malnutrition Increases Attention Deficits in Later Life

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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  • Landon

    May 14th, 2012 at 3:07 PM

    Well, at least there is something a little positive in that in the short term it appears that at least some of the harm caused by malnutrition can be treated and maybe even reversed. I suppose we will have to sit tight for information in the future as to whether the changes can remain permanent and hopefully undo much of the damage caused by malnutrition early on in life.

  • vern g

    May 14th, 2012 at 4:39 PM

    If these kids are already impovershed, then how are they supposed to have access to early intervention and care?

  • Christie

    May 15th, 2012 at 4:18 AM

    I try to wrap my head around this but it still amazes me that so many of us have so much, and yet there are still so many millions in the world who are faced with malnutrition and starvation. If these children from a very young age don’t have the fuel to feed the body, then it is understandable how so many of them end up with with learning challenges throughout their lifetimes. I know how low I feel even when I have not eaten in a few hours, so I can’t even begin to understand how I would feel, as a child, going day in and day out without proper nutrition to feed to body and feed the soul.

  • Alan

    May 15th, 2012 at 5:38 PM

    I am sure that the families who are living with the threat of poor nutrition are not thinking about the ramifications of what this could do later on. They are thinking of anything that they can do to feed their hungry children. It seems so unfair that there are parts of the world that have to live with this day by day, and minute by minute. But then we are so blessed and waste so much on thsoe same days without ever having to think that much of it. How do we change that kind of unblanace so that everyone in the world has enough food to eat and does not have to worry about problems that will face them later on that all stem from not having enough to eat today?

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