Influence of childhood socioeconomic position and ability on mid-life cognitive function: Evidence from three British birth cohorts

Eoin McElroy, Marcus Richards, Emla Fitzsimons, Gabriella Conti, George B. Ploubidis, Alice Sullivan, Vanessa Moulton

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Abstract

Background Childhood socioeconomic position (SEP) is robustly associated with cognitive function later in life. However, it is unclear whether this reflects a direct relationship, or an indirect association via modifiable factors such as educational attainment and occupation. We sought to clarify these associations using retrospectively harmonised data from three ongoing British birth cohorts. Methods We analysed data from the 1946 National Survey of Health and Development (n=2283), the 1958 National Child Development Study (n=9385) and the 1970 British Cohort Study (n=7631). Retrospective harmonisation was used to derive equivalent indicators of cognition, SEP, education and occupation across the three cohorts. Structural equation modelling was used to examine the association between childhood SEP and mid-life cognitive function, via childhood cognitive ability, educational attainment and mid-life occupation. Results Across all three cohorts, no direct pathways were observed between childhood SEP and mid-life cognitive function. Rather, this association was indirect via the three temporally ordered mediators. In addition, the direct pathway between childhood cognition and adult cognitive function was weaker in the two younger studies. Conclusions Across three British birth cohorts, we found that the association between early life SEP and mid-life cognitive function was fully mediated by childhood cognitive ability, educational attainment and occupational status. Furthermore, the association between early cognitive ability and mid-life cognitive function has decreased in younger generations. Therefore, cognitive function in adulthood may be influenced by modifiable factors and societal change.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)643-650
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Epidemiology and Community Health
Volume75
Issue number7
Early online date25 Feb 2021
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 25 Feb 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Funding This project is part of a collaborative research programme entitled ’Cohorts and Longitudinal Studies Enhancement Resources’ (CLOSER) funded by the ESRC (http://www.esrc.ac.uk) (ES/K000357/1).

Publisher Copyright:
©

Keywords

  • cognition
  • education
  • longitudinal studies
  • psychometrics
  • social inequalities

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