A Meta-Analysis of Stressors from the Total Environment Associated with Children's General Cognitive Ability

Frances M Nilsen, Jazmin D C Ruiz, Nicolle S Tulve
International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 2020 July 29, 17 (15)
General cognitive ability, often referred to as 'general intelligence', comprises a variety of correlated abilities. Childhood general cognitive ability is a well-studied area of research and can be used to predict social outcomes and perceived success. Early life stage (e.g., prenatal, postnatal, toddler) exposures to stressors (i.e., chemical and non-chemical stressors from the total (built, natural, social) environment) can impact the development of childhood cognitive ability. Building from our systematic scoping review (Ruiz et al., 2016), we conducted a meta-analysis to evaluate more than 100 stressors related to cognitive development. Our meta-analysis identified 23 stressors with a significant increase in their likelihood to influence childhood cognitive ability by 10% or more, and 80 stressors were observed to have a statistically significant effect on cognitive ability. Stressors most impactful to cognition during the prenatal period were related to maternal health and the mother's ability to access information relevant to a healthy pregnancy (e.g., diet, lifestyle). Stressors most impactful to cognition during the early childhood period were dietary nutrients (infancy), quality of social interaction (toddler), and exposure to toxic substances (throughout early childhood). In conducting this analysis, we examined the relative impact of real-world exposures on cognitive development to attempt to understand the inter-relationships between exposures to both chemical and non-chemical stressors and early developmental life stages. Our findings suggest that the stressors observed to be the most influential to childhood cognitive ability are not permanent and can be broadly categorized as activities/behaviors which can be modified to improve childhood cognition. This meta-analysis supports the idea that there are complex relationships between a child's total environment and early cognitive development.

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