Kids with cognitive issues may have mental health problems as adults

Children with low attention and poor memory are more likely to develop mental health conditions including depression and psychosis in adulthood, study warns

  • Experts studied data from a cohort of over 13,000 people born in 1991 and 1992 
  • They looked for links between cognitive issues in childhood and mental health
  • Those with poor attention spans at eight developed depression from age 18
  • Knowing these markers in childhood could help tackle later mental health issues 

Children who struggle with memory issues and have a poor attention span are more likely to develop mental health conditions when they become adults, study shows.

Researchers from the University of Birmingham analysed data from a cohort of 13,988 individuals born in 1991 and 1992 and re-examined over decades.

They set out to look for any links between childhood cognitive problems such as lack of control and memory issues, and later life mental health conditions.  

They found that poor attention span in eight year olds could lead to depression at 18, and memory problems at ten could lead to hypomania when they are 22 years old.

Targeting specific markers in childhood for early treatment may help to minimise the risk of developing certain psychopathological problems later in life. the team said.

Children who struggle with memory issues and have a poor attention span are more likely to develop mental health conditions when they become adults, study shows. Stock image


Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a behavioural condition defined by inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsiveness.

It affects around five per cent of children in the US. Some 3.6 per cent of boys and 0.85 per cent of girls suffer in the UK. 

Symptoms typically appear at an early age and become more noticeable as a child grows. These can also include:

  • Constant fidgeting 
  • Poor concentration
  • Excessive movement or talking
  • Acting without thinking
  • Little or no sense of danger 
  • Careless mistakes
  • Forgetfulness 
  • Difficulty organising tasks
  • Inability to listen or carry out instructions 

Most cases are diagnosed between six and 12 years old. Adults can also suffer, but there is less research into this.

ADHD’s exact cause is unclear but is thought to involve genetic mutations that affect a person’s brain function and structure.

Premature babies and those with epilepsy or brain damage are more at risk. 

ADHD is also linked to anxiety, depression, insomnia, Tourette’s and epilepsy.  

There is no cure. 

A combination of medication and therapy is usually recommended to relieve symptoms and make day-to-day life easier. 

Source: NHS Choices 

This includes conditions such as borderline personality disorder, depression and psychosis that can begin to show in people as young as 17 or 18 years old.

Cognitive deficits are core features of mental disorders and important in predicting long-term prognosis, according to lead author Dr Isabel Morales-Munoz.

The work from this new study seems to show that individual patterns of these deficits, such as a short attention span, predate some mental health disorders.  

Morales-Muñoz said: ‘Prevention strategies focussed on easing these specific cognitive issues could help to reduce the likelihood of such children developing linked mental health problems in adolescence and early adulthood.’

The study was the first to explore specific links between cognitive deficits in childhood and psychopathological issues in young people over a period of time.

Deficits in sustained attention at eight years being associated with borderline personality disorder (BPD) symptoms at 11-12 is consistent with similar deficits in adult BPD patients linked to difficulties in sticking to therapy programmes. 

Previous evidence also suggests a significant link between adult BPD and childhood Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) symptoms.

This indicates that ADHD could represent a risk factor for BPD, the team explained.

The study also supports the theory that lack of inhibition in childhood precedes later psychotic experiences, with a lack of inhibitory control common in psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia. 

Mental disorders cause a significant disease burden globally and at least 10% of children and adolescents worldwide have a mental disorder. 

The team said that 75% of mental disorders diagnosed in adults have their onset in childhood and adolescence.

Bipolar disorder, depression and psychosis commonly emerge during adolescence and continue in young adulthood – potentially related to anomalies in the way adolescents mature caused by psychosocial, biological or environmental factors.

‘It’s crucial to study the onset of mental disorders at these early stages and evaluate which risk factors predate these conditions,’ said co-author Matthew Broome.

‘These factors are core features of mental disorders such as psychosis and mood disorders,’ he explained.

They set out to look for any links between childhood cognitive problems such as lack of control and memory issues, and later life mental health conditions. Stock image

‘Deficits in cognitive function, ranging from decreased attention and working memory to disrupted social cognition and language, are common in psychiatric disorders,’ added senior author of the study Professor Steven Marwaha.

‘They severely compromise quality of life and could potentially predate serious mental health conditions by several years.’ 

The findings have been published in the journal JAMA Network Open.  


While it is normal to feel down from time to time, people with depression may feel persistently unhappy for weeks or months on end.

Depression can affect anyone at any age and is fairly common – approximately one in ten people are likely to experience it at some point in their life. 

Depression is a genuine health condition which people cannot just ignore or ‘snap out of it’.

Symptoms and effects vary, but can include constantly feeling upset or hopeless, or losing interest in things you used to enjoy.

It can also cause physical symptoms such as problems sleeping, tiredness, having a low appetite or sex drive, and even feeling physical pain.

In extreme cases it can lead to suicidal thoughts.

Traumatic events can trigger it, and people with a family history may be more at risk.

It is important to see a doctor if you think you or someone you know has depression, as it can be managed with lifestyle changes, therapy or medication. 

Source: NHS Choices 

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