living in harsh conditions

Nearly 100 female infants and babies living in harsh conditions for more than six months in Romanian orphanages, before British parents adopted them, demonstrated more childhood disorders during their early years and young adulthood when compared with their counterparts.


European doctors of medicine and the sciences wanted to learn what effects early-life experiences would have upon their 217-person study group as the children in the study grew and matured into young people. Their research focused on Romanian children British parents adopted in the early 1990s and followed them through age 25 years and compared these 98 children with their counterparts (67 female infants and babies who lived less than 6 months in deprived Romanian conditions) and a control group (52 British girl infants and babies who didn’t experience such early neglect).

Their study is the first, and derives its strength from having followed its defined groups for such a long period compared with other studies which have only examined early-childhood-development populations. The researchers chose Romanian orphans based on the societal upheaval following the ouster of that nation’s dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, in December 1989.

The research findings were published in The Lancet Feb. 22, 2017, online edition.

The doctors examined three questions:

  • Whether the 67 Romanian adoptees who lived fewer than six months in a deprived institutional setting would demonstrate later behavioral disorders after being welcomed into a loving, supportive British home;
  • Whether the 98 Romanian adoptees who lived more than six months in a deprived institutional setting who were welcomed into a loving, supportive British home would show greater rates of behavioral disorders such as autism and attention-deficit, hyperactivity, social abnormality and cognitive problems than those adopted before that six-month window, and;
  • Whether the aforementioned problems in the six-months-plus group would become more acute as they grew into young adulthood, among a few other factors.

The two groups’ characteristics were compared with the 52 British-adoptees control group to formulate the research findings. All necessary consent was obtained from both the parents and the children.

Measurements at ages 6, 11, 15 and at about an average of 23 ½ to24 ½ years demonstrated that the children who lived in deprived conditions during early formative years did show greater incidence of the study’s main focal points:

  • Autism;
  • Attention-deficit disorders and hyperactivity;
  • Inappropriate social contacts; and
  • Cognitive disorders, i.e. an IQ of less than 80.

The researchers quizzed those in their three study groups at the aforementioned ages and solicited answers from their parents utilizing a variety of age-appropriate questionnaires. In some instances, starting at age 11, the adoptees provided their respective, personal assessments, too.

In general, and at every age, the six-months-plus institutionalized group experienced higher rates of the above conditions studied, although the severity of the conditions generally lessened as the youngsters aged. The study authors noted that as the youngsters grew up, starting after 15 years old, the number of respondents among the adoptee and their respective parents’ populations dropped.

For example, in the six-months-plus group, just 73% of the original population responded to the questions when reaching their 20s. In the less-than-six-months group, that number fell even further – to 50%; and those in the control group reported at a 75% rate.

The researchers also looked at a range of what they called “emotional factors” among the three groups. As the trend was established in the six-months-plus group, those adoptees growing into young adulthood experienced more of what was called “late onset” problems. They and their parents reported incidents of various mental-health issues, with 22 in that group answering in the positive. Also, the most deprived group experienced greater rates of low academic achievement and unemployment, the study stated.

However, the silver lining amongst all the statistics showed that 15 individuals, or 21%, in the six-months-plus group reported no problems at any age, the study noted. This could be a study strength, indicating a resiliency factor even coming from difficult living conditions at a very early age.

A few limitations exist, however: The authors conceded that no prenatal information for anyone studied could be examined. Also, the lack of standardized questionnaires for consistent response measuring at any of the ages queried could have skewed results. In addition, the respondents’ drop-out rate between the teens and early 20s could have an impact. And lastly, authors stated they were unable to study what they called “sensitive developmental windows” due to the fact that adoptees’ duration and timing of deprivation had occurred.


Written By: Susan Mercer Hinrichs, MA, MBA, CPhT

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