Significant Events Throughout Life Increase Chances For Anxiety, Depression, and Cognitive Decline


The findings also indicated that individuals who experienced significant adverse events in childhood were approximately 17% more likely to experience adverse events in adulthood.

According to a recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, just 1 instance of adversity in childhood can increase the chances of a person having mental illness later in life. In addition, adverse events in adults can result in a greater chance of cognitive decline along with mental illness.1

sychologist sitting and touch hand young depressed asian man for encouragement near window with low light environment. | Image Credit: Chanintorn.v -

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“Life is very complicated, very dynamic. I really wanted to highlight the importance of looking into the lasting health effect of adversity, not only in childhood but also adulthood adversity on health outcomes, especially physical health, and psychiatric and cognitive health,” said study author SangNam Ahn, PhD, associate professor of health management and policy in the College for Public Health and Social Justice, Saint Louis University, in a press release. “There have been other studies before, but this is one of the first that looks into these issues comprehensively.”1

A total of 3496 individuals were examined over the course of 24 years (1992 to 2016), and the investigators used individual-level panel data as well as ordinary least squares regressions to estimate the possible associations between childhood and adult adversities, as well as depression, anxiety, and cognitive impairment later in life. Some adversities in childhood included moving because of financial difficulties or family needing help financially, a parental figure dealing with unemployment, repeating school, and physical abuse, among others. Some adult adversities included the death of a child or spouse, firing a weapon in combat, experiencing a natural disaster after the age of 17, and a partner abusing drugs or alcohol.1,2

Of the participants enrolled in the study, approximately 38% experienced a significant event in early life, and 79% experienced one in adulthood. According to the findings, those who experienced childhood adversities were 17% more likely to experience significant events in adulthood. In addition, approximately 13% of participants reported 2 or more forms of childhood adversity, whereas 52% had experienced 2 or more forms of adversity in adulthood.1,2

In instances of either childhood or adult adversity, individuals who experienced any adversity were more likely to experience anxiety and depression later in life. Those who experienced 1 significant event in childhood saw an approximate 5% higher change of suffering from anxiety later in life, and those who experienced 2 events had 26% and 10% higher chances of depression and anxiety, respectively. Further, those who faced adversities in adulthood were also more likely to experience cognitive decline later in life, with those experiencing 2 events in adulthood having 24% and 3% higher chances of suffering from depression and cognitive decline, respectively.1,2

The study authors also highlighted the correlation between education and childhood adversities. The findings demonstrated a trend in which individuals who reported higher levels of education experienced a reduction in the number of adverse events.1

“Before including education, there was a significant association between childhood adversity and cognitive impairment. But when including education as a covariate, that significant association disappeared…there were important implications here,” said Ahn in the press release. “[When receiving an] education and attending school, people could be better off even if they were exposed to childhood adversity. They're likely to learn positive coping mechanisms, which may help avoid relying on unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as smoking or excessive drinking or drug use.”1

The study authors also urge both everyday people and health care professionals to discuss their stress levels. Health care professionals will be able to learn more about their patients while also having a better approach when it comes to both their physical and mental health, and sharing stress can help everyday people get to the root of their experiences in life and potentially result in less serious or lasting effects.1

“Public health is very interested in stress. But we’re still examining how daily stress impacts our long-term health outcomes. So, to see the effects here in the study, I want people to pay attention to their stress and proactively address it,” said Ahn in the press release. “Clinicians should have deep discussions with their patients about their stress and mental state. And those topics can be approached in other areas too, like the classroom or the dining room table. The more we are aware of stress and discuss our stress, the better we can handle any adversities we find in life.”1


  1. Saint Louis University. SLU professor studies link between adversity, psychiatric and cognitive decline. News release. March 1, 2024. Accessed March 12, 2024.
  2. Ahn, S., Kim, S., Zhang, H., Dobalian, A., & Slavich, G. M. (2024). Lifetime adversity predicts depression, anxiety, and cognitive impairment in a nationally representative sample of older adults in the United States. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 1–19. doi:10.1002/jclp.23642
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