Media Briefings

Cognitive Decline In Later Life: The Long-Term Impact Of Being Born In A Recession

  • Published Date: November 2010

People who are born during a recession may suffer adverse consequences in their later years in terms of the impact of a stroke and other serious life events on their cognitive abilities. Research by Professor Gerard Van den Berg and colleagues, published in the November 2010 Economic Journal, shows that:

  • Individuals who experience serious life events (such as the death of a parent, a brother or a grandchild) or the onset of a serious chronic condition (such as a stroke) experience a strong subsequent decline in cognitive abilities.
  • The consequences of a stroke on cognition are even more devastating if the older individual experienced adverse economic conditions around his or her birth. The effects are stronger for women.

What happens to our mental functioning as we grow older? How many of us will suffer from increasing forgetfulness, difficulties with concentrating and finding words or even from dementia or Parkinson’s disease?

Though the overall picture points to an inevitable decline due to physiological deterioration of the brain, there is enormous variation across older people. Some remain mentally sharp all their life while others face serious cognitive illnesses. But apart from genetic factors, what accounts for this variation?

Recent research suggests that adverse conditions during the brain’s development stages early in life affect cognitive functioning later in life and may lead to neurological diseases, such as dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The adverse early life conditions that have been most studied are nutritional, but they also include exposure to high levels of stress or illness and exposure to hazardous chemicals.

In this new study, the environmental conditions in early life are characterised using business cycle fluctuations in the birth year. The basic idea is that birth in a recession causes unexpected income shocks and adverse economic conditions in many households. This may in turn lead to a low quality and/or quantity of nutrition, to adverse housing conditions and to an enhanced stress level in the household.

The study analyses a Dutch longitudinal database – the Longitudinal Aging Study Amsterdam – which follows over 3,000 people born in 1908-37 for more than 15 years. Cognitive functioning is measured using two widely used indicators to estimate the severity of cognitive impairment in older adults and to measure fluid intelligence (the ability to deal with new information, a function that is particularly sensitive to ageing).

The researchers compare individuals exposed to recessions during their first year of life with otherwise similar individuals born during better economic times. The results show that strokes are more devastating if the individual is born under adverse economic conditions – and that the ability to recover from strokes is more limited if birth was under adverse economic conditions.

These results cannot be explained by differences in individual-specific background characteristics, such as educational attainment, contemporaneous conditions and other determinants of individual mortality. The effects are stronger for women than for men.

The researchers note that it is important to know the determinants of cognitive decline. First, because the rate of decline of cognitive ability is an important predictor of mortality. Second, cognitive decline of an older family member may strongly affect the functioning of a household. Finally, the costs of care for cognitively impaired individuals are high and are expected to increase substantially in the coming decades.

Adverse events in the lives of older individuals are readily observed by care professionals and are therefore a potentially informative red flag for a future decline. If, as this research shows, early life conditions also affect the magnitude of the cognitive effects of major adverse events later in life, then it is worth focusing monitoring on those who were subject to such events and who were born under adverse conditions.


Notes for editors: ‘The Role of Early-life Conditions in the Cognitive Decline due to Adverse Events Later in Life’ by Gerard van den Berg, Dorly Deeg, Maarten Lindeboom and France Portrait is published in the November 2010 issue of the Economic Journal.

The authors are all associated with VU University Amsterdam.

For further information: contact Romesh Vaitilingam on +44-7768-661095 (email:; Gerard van den Berg via email:; Maarten Lindeboom via email:; or France Portrait via email: