Lifelong functional, adaptive, and economic outcomes of moderate to severe infantile malnutrition are not well known. We assessed social status and income at midlife in a cohort of Barbadian adults, hospitalized for protein-energy malnutrition (PEM) during the first year of life, with good nutrition and health thereafter, in the context of a 40-year longitudinal case-control study. We also examined to what extent childhood IQ mediated any group differences.
Educational achievement, occupational status, and standard of living were assessed by the Hollingshead scales and a site-specific Ecology Questionnaire in Barbadian adults (aged 37–43 years) with a history of malnutrition (n = 80) and a matched healthy control group (n = 63), classmates of the index cases. Malnutrition effects, adjusted for childhood standard of living, were estimated by longitudinal multiple regression analyses, with and without childhood IQ, in the models.
PEM predicted poorer socioeconomic outcomes with medium to large effect sizes (0.50–0.94), but childhood IQ substantially attenuated the magnitude of these effects (adjusted effect sizes: 0.17–0.34). The gap in weekly household income between the PEM and control groups increased substantially over the life span (P < .001).
Moderate to severe PEM during the first year of life with adequate nutrition and health care thereafter is associated with significant depression of socioeconomic outcomes in adulthood, mediated in part by cognitive compromise in affected individuals. This finding underscores the potential long-term economic burden of infant malnutrition, which is of major concern given the continued high prevalence of malnutrition worldwide.