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Keywords:

  • famine;
  • malnutrition;
  • child behavior;
  • development

ABSTRACT

The current and long-term effects of famine and malnutrition on cognitive and behavioral development are reviewed. The brain is vulnerable to the effects of insults during critical periods of brain development from the second trimester of pregnancy until 2 years of age. Malnutrition experienced at these ages will have lifelong consequences that are not reversed by adequate nutrition. Long-term effects of prenatal, postnatal and childhood malnutrition have been reported even after a long period of recovery from the illness itself. We summarize results of our longitudinal study in Barbados in which we followed individuals, now 28–34 years of age, who experienced moderate to severe malnutrition during their first year of life and a healthy comparison group from the same classrooms. Our studies showed that malnutrition had a negative impact on cognitive and behavioral functioning throughout childhood and adolescence, even after controlling for socioeconomic conditions and other factors in the home environment. The most striking finding in our series of studies was a fourfold increase from 15% to 60% in the frequency of attention deficit disorder following infantile malnutrition. Attention deficits persisted at least through adolescence and was closely associated with poor performance on a national high school examination at 11 years of age. We conclude that, under conditions of famine, it is important to include early and comprehensive interventions to reverse not only medical conditions resulting from malnutrition, but also cognitive and behavioral deficits arising from famine. In the absence of appropriate interventions, compromised behavioral function may continue long beyond the episode, may impact on the quality of life over the long-term of survivors, and increase costs to society.