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Data comes from more than 2,600 individuals from four different countries and looks at links between factors like childhood stature, IQ and schooling.

A child's hand holding a pen © Shutterstock

Cognitive development is likely associated with early stature largely due to shared effects with other socio-economic factors, according to a new longitudinal study.

Using data from more than 2,600 people from four different countries (Brazil, Guatemala, Philippines and South Africa), researchers investigated several factors to see how well they predicted the individual’s IQ (one measure of cognitive ability) as an adult. These included stature as a child, the individual’s IQ as a child, and their schooling.

Children who do not have adequate nutrition may not grow at the same rate as other children their age (sometimes referred to as ‘stunting’), and this lower stature is often associated with poorer cognitive development.

The study found that while stature in early childhood did appear to associate with adult IQ, the links were substantially weakened when other factors such as schooling and their IQ as children were taken into account.

For example, adults tended to have higher IQs due to more schooling, or greater childhood IQ regardless of whether they had smaller early life stature or not. This suggests that education and other socio-economic factors influencing early IQ have a greater influence over cognitive development.

Dr Georgina Donati from Oxford University’s Department of Psychiatry, one of the authors of the paper alongside Professor Alan Stein, said: 

“It is widely understood that ensuring children have adequate nutrition is important for growth and brain development and therefore cognitive ability.

“These findings suggest that while interventions targeted at growth for health and early development are important, interventions that more specifically target early cognitive ability are also required.

“We need a more holistic approach to early childhood and should not be reliant on just nutrition and health. We need to start thinking about activities and tactics that enhance children’s cognition and development too.”

The study was published in The Lancet Global Health with an accompanying commentary.