For most eight year olds in school simple math problems like five minus two is child's play, but that's not the case for those who are severely malnourished. This is the finding of a pathbreaking new study on malnutrition which reveals how a poor diet impacts not just physical growth but also the mental and intellectual abilities of children.
The study, commissioned in the 90s by 'Save the Children', an NGO, was spread across four developing countries namely, India, Vietnam, Peru and Ethiopia.
This study has been tracking 12,000 children in four countries for over 10 years, from the ages of five to 15, to examine how access to nutrients affects the child's learning capacity.
The study found that at eight years old, children suffering from chronic malnutrition are 19 per cent more likely to find it difficult to read simple sentences like 'I like dogs' or 'The sun is hot.'
Stunted children are 12.5 per cent more likely to make a mistake writing a simple sentence and are seven per cent more likely to make mistakes while responding to simple math sums like eight minus three.
Latha Coleb, Director, Programmes, at 'Save the Children' said, "It is well known the malnutrition impacts the physical growth of children. This is a longitudinal study for 15 years. We chose these developing countries since they are at different stages of development and hence the sample would be representative of the larger status of developing countries."
Not just learning abilities, the study also puts an economic cost to the impact malnutrition has on children's future capabilities. The study says that when today's malnourished children become part of tomorrow's working population, it impacts their earning potential. The study puts the figure at an estimated $125 billion globally.
The study is an important entry into a widely debated issue. Many experts say that drawing a direct co-relation or inference between malnutrition and cognitive abilities involves many complex issues and more research.
Dr Vandana Prasad, member of the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights tells NDTV, "Since there are so many confounding factors that affect cognitive development and malnutrition together, so technically speaking, as a research subject, it is very very difficult to achieve a very direct statement saying that it is malnutrition alone by dint of nutrients alone that will affect cognitive development in this particular way. So measuring cognitive ability as a technical subject is also very very difficult. But why this study is valuable is that it is the domain of early childhood development that is underdeveloped on our country. We have very poor systems in law, policy. We haven't received the human resources or financial resources to deal with this problem."
For a country that calls malnutrition a national shame, yet loses over 1.6 million children to it every year, facts like these could help bring the focus on the need to tackle the problem with more action and greater understanding of ground realities.