The Effects of Lifetime Trauma Exposure on Cognitive Functioning in Midlife

Kristin S. LynchMargie E. LachmanFirst published: 09 June 2020

Kristin S. Lynch is now at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of The City University of New York and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

This research was supported by the National Institute on Aging Grants U19‐AG051426 and P01‐AG020166 for the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study.Read the full textPDFTOOLSSHARE


Accumulating evidence suggests that lifetime trauma exposure is associated with adulthood cognitive functioning. However, the nature and extent of this relation have yet to be fully explored. We used multilevel modeling to examine trauma exposure and age at first trauma exposure as predictors of the level of and change in cognitive functioning over a 9‐year period. Data were from the Midlife in the United States study, a national survey that began in 1995. Data regarding trauma exposure and age at first exposure were obtained from the 2004 wave, whereas cognitive data were obtained from the 2004 and 2013 waves. The analyses were conducted using data from the 2,471 participants (age range: 28–84 years) who had complete data on all variables from the 2004 wave. Lifetime trauma exposure predicted change in executive functioning (EF), B = −0.03, SE = 0.01, p = .015, 95% CI [−0.05, −0.01]; and episodic memory, B = −0.05, SE = 0.02, p = .023, 95% CI [−0.10, −0.01], such that individuals with more trauma exposure had more decline over 9 years. Age at first exposure also predicted change in EF, B = −0.002, SE = 0.00, p = .009, 95% CI [−0.004, −0.001], such that individuals who were first exposed to trauma later in life had greater EF decline than individuals whose first traumatic event occurred earlier in life. Delta pseudo‐urn:x-wiley:08949867:media:jts22522:jts22522-math-0001 values were moderate, ΔpseudoR2 = .17–.39. These findings identify trauma exposure as a risk factor for cognitive decline in adulthood and highlight the elevated risk associated with adulthood trauma exposure.

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About S. R. Zelenz 119 Articles
S.R. Zelenz has worked in education for 20 years. Working with students from all walks of life, cultures, races, and social diversity, Zelenz’s research in Educational Leadership led to finding a better way to approach learning for students with trauma histories. Many were juvenile offenders, gang members, diagnosed with varying behavioral disorders, or had family histories of violence, murder, or narcissistic parenting. This research could not be effectively accomplished without further understanding: how epigenetic trauma inheritance may be impacting these students; how brain development from trauma may be impacting their behavioral and emotional development; as well as deep understanding of psychology and its varying classifications for behavioral and personality disorders. The goal is to find solutions for changing the conversation and making a real difference for these students. She has also worked with nonprofits of varying focus areas for the last 25 years. Her undergraduate degree in Arts Administration and Music prepared her for managing nonprofits of any size as well as procuring funding so that they can achieve their goals. Pairing her nonprofit background with her education background, she has been able to make a difference for over 200 nonprofits worldwide, written curriculum for schools across the globe, and assisted many arts organizations through performance and management.