Trait anxiety has its roots in early life

It has been known that young adults who grew up in poorer households tend to have a higher trait anxiety, which is a personality feature characterized by a tendency to respond with troubles, concerns and worries to various situations. It predisposes people to the development of anxiety and affective disorders, the most common mental disorders in the population. A particularly strong risk factor is growing up in a household that cannot secure the family with basic things, such as food, clothes, heating, rent and necessities for the child. As such early-life socioeconomic deprivation of a household is tied with lower cognitive ability of the children, in particular in combination with lower education of parents, the association of early-life socioeconomic deprivation with trait anxiety may be due to the fact that low socioeconomic resources do not allow children to cognitively develop towards their full potential, which deprives them from efficiently pursuing their mental health.

We studied 54 participants of the Czech arm of the European Longitudinal Study of Pregnancy and Childhood, a prenatal cohort whose members were born in 1991/1992 in two Moravian towns. At the age of 13, some individuals participated in a psychological sub-study, during which their cognitive ability was assessed, and at age 23/24 years, some cohort members underwent assessments of mental health and brain MRI. 

We found that worse early-life socioeconomic deprivation was associated with lower cognitive ability in adolescence and that this association was strongest in individuals whose mothers reached university education. Further, higher cognitive ability in adolescence predicted lower trait anxiety in young adulthood, particularly among those who experienced high levels of socioeconomic deprivation in early life. The relationship between higher cognitive ability in adolescence and lower trait anxiety in young adulthood was mediated by functional connectivity between the right lateral prefrontal cortex and a large cluster including left precentral, postcentral gyrus and superior frontal gyri.

The finding that the combination of mother´s high education and early-life socioeconomic deprivation is the most detrimental to cognitive ability in adolescence is surprising. It has been described that a mis-match between the achieved level of education and corresponding socioeconomic status negatively affect one´s mental health and that poor mental health of mothers is linked to worse mental health and accelerated brain ageing of their offspring. Our study shows that this may hold for cognitive ability of the offspring as well. Possibly, the stress associated with socioeconomic deprivation may deprive the well-educated mothers from being available for cognitively stimulating activities with their children.

Previous studies also indicated that the way adults use their cognitive ability in pursuing their mental health depends on the socioeconomic resources they had at their disposal when they were children. We showed that the association of cognitive ability with trait anxiety is present particularly among those who experienced high levels of early-life socioeconomic deprivation. High cognitive ability may armour people with resilience. Possibly, these individuals could be more successful in finding solutions for stressful situations or learn more quickly how to avoid them. It is documented that children with a higher cognitive ability regain functioning in the face of adversity easier than children with lower cognitive ability. Higher cognitive ability may thus indicate a higher cognitive reserve in overcoming disadvantages caused by early-life socioeconomic deprivation and buffer against the odds of developing trait anxiety.

Our study also found simultaneous involvement of both somatic and prefrontal brain regions in the association between cognitive ability and trait anxiety. We believe that the synchronous activation of the lateral prefrontal cortex and the somatic brain network may indicate the involvement of cognitive control, mitigating anxiety. We conclude that growing up in households that face socioeconomic difficulties may have long-term negative consequences on one´s cognitive ability and mental health. Higher cognitive ability and the related increase in the recruitment of the right lateral prefrontal cortex may, however, ameliorate the experience of anxiety.

Link to the paper here.

Created: 17. 12. 2021 / Modified: 17. 12. 2021 / Responsible person: MUDr. Pavla Čermáková, Ph.D.