Age-Related Cognitive Decline Is Linked to Trauma

Photo of Margie Lachman
Mike Lovett
Margie Lachman

If you suffered trauma as a child or an adult, you may experience greater cognitive decline as you age than those who haven’t experienced trauma do, a new study suggests.

Furthermore, trauma suffered in adulthood has a larger impact on some aspects of cognitive functioning than childhood trauma, according to the study’s authors.

“We found that the more adverse events experienced, such as your parents’ divorce or a parent dying, the greater the cognitive decline,” says Margie Lachman, the Minnie and Harold Fierman Professor of Psychology, who co-authored the study in the Journal of Traumatic Stress with Kristin Lynch, MS’18.

Lachman and Lynch studied roughly 2,500 adults, ages 28 to 84, between 2004-13 as part of Midlife Development in the U.S., a national longitudinal study of health and well-being in adulthood.

Participants were asked if they had experienced any of a list of 12 potentially traumatic events, including divorce; death of a parent during childhood; emotional or physical abuse; parental alcohol or drug addiction; combat experience; and losing a home to fire, flood or natural disaster. Respondents then indicated whether any of the events caused severe emotional distress — trauma.

Subjects were also asked a series of questions that tested their cognitive abilities in two areas: executive functioning (EF) and episodic memory (EM). EF pertains to such skills as focusing attention, planning, problem-solving and multitasking. The test of EM involved remembering recently learned information.

The psychologists compared the results of individuals who said they had lived through trauma with those who indicated they hadn’t and tested their EF and EM over the course of nine years. Respondents who said they had experienced more traumatic events showed greater declines in both EF and EM.

Lachman says this may be because trauma has been linked to stress and depression, both of which are known to impair cognitive functioning. Trauma is also linked to metabolic disease, inflammation and immune system disruption, which are also known to harm the brain’s performance.

Suffering trauma does not automatically mean an individual will experience greater cognitive impairment in later life, Lynch says. Trauma’s impact varies, and some people are more resilient or receive treatment that can mitigate its effects.

The effects of cognitive decline can be subtle and may even go unnoticed, says Lynch, who earned a master’s in psychology at Brandeis and is now a PhD student at New York City’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “It might not feel like there’s an effect on your day-to-day functioning.”

When Lachman and Lynch looked at whether childhood or more-recent traumatic experiences had a greater effect on cognition, they found that individuals exposed to trauma later in life had a greater decline in EF than individuals whose first traumatic event occurred earlier in life. Lachman speculates there may be more opportunity to recover from childhood trauma. Children may be more likely to receive supportive interventions or the increased plasticity of their brains may make them more likely to adapt in the long term.

The level of decline in EM did not vary on the basis of when the event occurred, a finding the researchers say requires further study.