Intellectual development and children with heart disease

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Read about how the development of a child's intellect may be affected by a congenital heart condition.

Key points

  • The majority of children with mild congenital heart defects will not experience negative effects on their intellectual development.
  • Some aspects of the condition may influence the child's mental development and affect their attention, language development, or executive function memory.
  • Most children with CHD have similar psychological and emotional development to children without CHD.
  • Psychological or emotional problems surface more often during adolescence.

This page explains how severe heart conditions may affect a child's mental development.

How do congenital heart conditions affect intellectual functioning?

The majority of children born with mild congenital heart defects do not require surgery. In such cases, and in the absence of genetic conditions or chromosomal anomalies, it is highly unlikely to see negative effects on the child’s intellectual development. Studies have shown that children with CHD have intellectual abilities within the normal range, albeit at the lower end.

There are, however, some aspects of the condition that can influence the child's mental development. For example, while having cyanosis for a long time does not seem to impede IQ immediately, if it continues for decades, there may be an effect on intelligence. Some children go on to have learning disabilities which may be connected with oxygen deprivation (hypoxia) they experienced as a result of their heart condition or during surgery. In children with cyanotic lesions, impairment of cognitive functions increases with age. Other studies found that children with complex CHD who needed surgery as an infant are more likely to have attention and hyperactivity problems as they grow and develop. Still, other children with CHD may have problems with language development, attention, or executive function memory. Executive functioning can be broadly defined as higher order cognitive abilities that allow for strategic planning, cognitive flexibility, self-regulation, and goal directed behaviour.

How does congenital heart disease affect emotional development?

Most children with CHD have similar psychological and emotional development to children without CHD. In certain cases, children with CHD can have significant emotional problems, such as anxiety or depression. Such feelings are more often seen in children with more severe heart defects or those in need of cardiopulmonary bypass surgery. Recent studies have also shown that if a child has an intellectual delay or emotional dysfunction before surgery, it is likely to persist after surgery. It is more common for psychological or emotional problems to surface during the adolescent years, when the child becomes more self-aware and faces more challenges.

Last updated: December 14th 2009