"These are the first findings to show that malnutrition in the early postnatal years is associated with behavior problems through age 17," said Jianghong Liu, a postdoctoral fellow with USC's Social Science Research Institute and the lead author of the study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry's November issue.
"Identifying the early risk factors for this behavior in childhood and adolescence is an important first step for developing successful prevention programs for adult violence," she said.
For 14 years, researchers followed the nutritional, behavioral and cognitive development of more than 1,000 children who lived on Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa.
The sample of boys and girls included children with Indian, Creole, Chinese, English and French ethnicities.
Researchers assessed their nutrition at age 3, looking for four indicators in particular:
- angular stomatitis, or cracking in the lips and corners of the mouth that is caused by a deficiency of the B vitamin riboflavin;
- hair dyspigmentation, a condition – found primarily in tropical regions – where children's hair takes on a reddish-orange color due to protein deficiency;
- sparse, thin hair created by a deficiency in protein, zinc and iron; and
- anemia, which reflects iron deficiency.
The children's intelligence level and cognitive ability were also tested, and social workers visited their homes to come up with a so-called adversity score that summarized factors such as the income, occupation, health, age and education levels of their parents and their overall living conditions.
At ages 8, 11 and 17 years, the researchers looked at how the children were behaving in school and at home.
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