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Lower cognitive functioning in early childhood has been proposed as a risk factor for depression in later life but its association with depressive symptoms during adolescence has rarely been investigated. Our study examines the relationship between total intelligence quotient (IQ) score at age 8 years, and depressive symptoms at 11, 13, 14 and 17 years.
Study participants were 5250 children and adolescents from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and their Children (ALSPAC), UK, for whom longitudinal data on depressive symptoms were available. IQ was assessed with the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children III, and self-reported depressive symptoms were measured with the Short Mood and Feelings Questionnaire (SMFQ).
Multi-level analysis on continuous SMFQ scores showed that IQ at age 8 years was inversely associated with depressive symptoms at age 11 years, but the association changed direction by age 13 and 14 years (age–IQ interaction, p<0.0001; age squared–IQ interaction, p<0.0001) when a higher IQ score was associated with a higher risk of depressive symptoms. This change in IQ effect was also found in relation to pubertal stage (pubertal stage–IQ interaction, 0.00049<p⩽0.038). At age 17 years, however, sex-specific differences emerged (sex–age squared–IQ interaction, p=0.0075). Whilst the risk effect of higher childhood IQ scores for depressive symptoms declined in females, and some analyses even supported an inverse association by age 17 years, it persisted in males.
Our results suggest that the association between cognitive ability in childhood and depressive symptoms in adolescence varies according to age and/or pubertal stage.
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