Common childhood infections, including those that result in numerous absences from school, do not appear to negatively impact children’s brains or their ability to do well in school, according to a new Danish study at Aarhus University.
In recent years, research has focused on how children develop and perform intellectually following serious illnesses and hospitalizations. But according to the new findings, the decisive factor appears to be the severity of the disease and not the number of sick days.
“Other studies have demonstrated that serious illnesses, for example severe infections such as measles, rubella, or meningitis, which we vaccinate against, affect the brain and thereby the child’s ability to learn,” said medical doctor and Ph.D. student Ole Köhler-Forsberg from the Department of Clinical Medicine at Aarhus University.
“From this we know that illnesses and in particular infections to some degree have an influence on our brains. In this study, we decided to look at how children perform following the less severe infections that many of them frequently experience during their childhood. After all, this is the largest group of children.”
The study, which involved 598,553 Danes born between 1987 and 1997, is based on the Danish registers containing data on health, treatment, and hospital admissions, dispensing of prescriptions and the ninth grade examination, which was in this case the researchers’ benchmark.
The results were also adjusted for factors such as birth weight, mental, or chronic illness in the child, and also the level of education and mental health of the parents. “This provides a more precise and valid result,” said Köhler-Forsberg.
The findings emphasize that whether five, 10, or even 15 prescriptions have been picked up at the pharmacy during childhood, there is still no significant impact on the child’s ability to complete primary and lower secondary school.
“On the other hand, we found that children who had been admitted to hospital as a result of severe infections had a lower chance of completing ninth grade. The decisive factor is therefore the severity of the disease, but not necessarily the number of sick days,” said Köhler-Forsberg.
“The study ought to reassure those parents who find that their young children are often sick. Our findings indicate that as long as we ‘only’ have a case of less severe infections, and even though the child is definitely ill and requires medicine, the child’s cognitive development is not at risk,” he said.
The study does suggest a link between severe infections and cognitive skills in the form of a reduced chance of completing ninth grade, but due to the register-based design of the study, this finding could also be explained by other factors. Such severe infections are less frequent in Denmark though as a result of the Danish vaccination program.
The study, which is the largest of its kind to date, is published in The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal.
Source: Aarhus University