Healthy brain development sets you up for life

Research shows how your brain develops before birth and in the first six years of life can have life-long effects on your health and wellbeing.

A new evidence brief, Executive functions: A crucial but overlooked factor for lifelong wellbeing, outlines the cumulative effects of poor brain functions from infancy, through adolescence to adulthood.

The authors, Dr Felicia Low and Sir Peter Gluckman from Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures at the University of Auckland, and Professor Richie Poulton of the University of Otago, say a whole-of-society and whole-of-Government response is needed with robust policies that recognise the importance of helping all children develop optimal executive functions.

Executive functions are the set of brain processes that enable us to achieve basic tasks such as learning, solving problems, controlling impulses, and interacting harmoniously with others.

Impaired executive functions place a person at greater risk of negative lifelong consequences, including failing at school, poorer mental and physical health, job instability, antisocial behaviours and poorer quality of life. Disadvantages may be passed on to subsequent generations in a vicious cycle through suboptimal parenting.

Dr Low says: “The importance of well-developed executive functions in setting up children for lifelong wellbeing and success has been greatly underappreciated. We need to ensure every child has the best chance to reach their full potential through developing healthy executive functions.”

Prof Poulton says only within the past 10 years has research demonstrated the importance of executive functions. Compelling findings from the world-famous Dunedin Longitudinal study map clear associations between executive functions at age three and many life outcomes many decades later.

“Most recently we’ve shown that executive functions, as measured by self-regulation at as young as age three years could predict how rapidly a person was physically aging by their mid-forties, and therefore who was at greatest risk of developing debilitating health conditions as they grow older,” Prof Poulton says.

However, executive functions can be easily compromised through factors such as low-socioeconomic status, poor maternal mood during pregnancy, parental insensitivity and neglect, toxic stress, high levels of non-educational screen time and unbalanced postnatal nutrition.

“What have we learnt, and what we are still learning, is in the early years of life, the brain’s pathways are delicate and easily damaged. The good news is impaired functions can be prevented and can be reversed through early intervention. There’s been much talk of wellbeing over the past few years, but healthy executive functions are the skills that really matter, and we need to see it recognised in Government policy,” says Sir Peter.

The researchers say policies should focus on promoting brain health, including the quality of mental health and wellbeing, so that every child reaches their maximum capacity for learning, creativity, and productivity.

Evidence suggests the priority issues to address are preventing impairment, identifying the most at-risk children for early intervention, and developing evidence-informed policies on treatment.

The brief, funded by the Wright Family Foundation, states: “As well as a moral imperative, there is a compelling economic argument to invest in young children and provide the opportunity for proper executive functions development, as this benefits not only the children themselves, but also wider society and future generations.”

The work dovetails into a Wellcome Leap-funded international consortium project led by Sir Peter with Prof Poulton researching more precise methods of early screening of executive functions.

Prof Poulton says sadly many children in Aotearoa New Zealand grow up in families that struggle with many challenges in life.

“Beyond the pernicious effects of poverty which of course should be addressed, the ability to self-regulate, which is controlling your emotions rather than having them control you, is one of the most important abilities a child can acquire in terms of coping and overcoming these challenges. It can have long lasting impacts on how a child’s life turns out”.

The evidence brief is available here.

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