How Early Nutrition and Foundational Cognitive Skills Interconnect? Evidence from Two Developing Countries

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Population Center Working Papers (PSC/PARC)
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Foundational Cognitive Skills
Early Nutrition
Executive Functions
Young Lives Study
Demography, Population, and Ecology
Health Economics
Medicine and Health Sciences
Social and Behavioral Sciences
Acknowledgment: This study was funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD R21 HD097576) project entitled “Foundational cognitive skills in developing countries: early-life nutritional, climatic and policy determinants and impacts on adolescent education, socio-emotional competencies and risky behaviors.” Thanks also to the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) for funding Young Lives at Work and enabling this research. The funders had no role in the design, interpretation or writing-up of the study or in the decision to submit the study for consideration for publication. We are grateful to Santiago Cueto, Richard Freund, Annina Hittmeyer, Nicolás Pazos, Douglas Scott, Bernard Moscoso, and participants at the LACEA conference (Lima, 2022) for providing very useful comments.
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We use unique data collected in Ethiopia and Peru as part of the Young Lives Study to investigate the relationship between early undernutrition and four foundational cognitive skills, the first two of which measure executive functioning: working memory, inhibitory control, long-term memory, and implicit learning. We exploit the rich longitudinal data available to control for potential confounders at the household level and for time-invariant community characteristics. We also exploit the availability of data for paired-siblings to obtain household fixed-effects estimates. Overall, we find robust evidence that stunting is negatively related with the development of executive functions, predicting reductions in working memory and inhibitory control by 12.6% and 5.8% of a standard deviation. Our results shed light on the mechanisms that explain the relationship between early nutrition and school achievement tests suggesting that good nutrition is an important determinant of children’s learning capacities.

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