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The existing evidence linking early undernutrition to educational outcomes in developing countries is largely focused on assessing its impacts on grade attainment and achievement test scores, with limited evidence on the foundational cognitive skills required to perform well at school. 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 measured later in childhood, 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 and individual level and for time-invariant community characteristics. We also take advantage of the availability of data for paired-siblings to obtain household fixed-effects estimates. In the latter specification, we find robust evidence that stunting at ~ age 5 is negatively related with executive functions measured years later, predicting reductions in working memory and inhibitory control by 12.6% and 5.8% of a standard deviation. Although the main cohort of Young Lives was around 12 years old when executive functions were measured, complementary results and analysis of the data available for the younger siblings suggest that the impact of stunting on executive functions-specifically, on working memory-starts at an earlier age. 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.

Original publication




Journal article


World Dev

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