Early Life Adversity Contributes to Impaired Cognition and Impulsive Behavior: Studies from the Oklahoma Family Health Patterns Project

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Abstract

Background

Stressful early life experience may have adverse consequences in adulthood and may contribute to behavioral characteristics that increase vulnerability to alcoholism. We examined early life adverse experience in relation to cognitive deficits and impulsive behaviors with a reference to risk factors for alcoholism.

Methods

We tested 386 healthy young adults (18 to 30 years of age; 224 women; 171 family history positive for alcoholism) using a composite measure of adverse life experience (low socioeconomic status plus personally experienced adverse events including physical and sexual abuse and separation from parents) as a predictor of performance on the Shipley Institute of Living scale, the Stroop color-word task, and a delay discounting task assessing preference for smaller immediate rewards in favor of larger delayed rewards. Body mass index (BMI) was examined as an early indicator of altered health behavior.

Results

Greater levels of adversity predicted higher Stroop interference scores (F = 3.07, p = 0.048), faster discounting of delayed rewards (F = 3.79, p = 0.024), lower Shipley mental age scores (F = 4.01, p = 0.019), and higher BMIs in those with a family history of alcoholism (F = 3.40, p = 0.035). These effects were not explained by age, sex, race, education, or depression.

Conclusions

The results indicate a long-term impact of stressful life experience on cognitive function, impulsive behaviors, and early health indicators that may contribute to risk in persons with a family history of alcoholism.

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