Child­hood Eco­nomic Sta­bil­ity Found to Be Key to Adult Health

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In a re­port pub­lished on Fe­bru­ary 20 in the jour­nal Age and Age­ing, the eco­nomic se­cu­rity of chil­dren was found to have a ma­jor im­pact on the health of those same peo­ple as adults later in life.

The study, car­ried out by re­searchers on be­half of the Euro­pean Union (EU), cov­ered more than 24,000 peo­ple be­tween the ages of 50 and 96. It looked at cor­re­la­tions be­tween adult health and the so­cial and eco­nomic sta­tus of older peo­ple from 14 dif­fer­ent states within the EU.

The study looked specif­i­cally at mus­cle strength as peo­ple age. This is not a com­plete de­ter­mi­nant of health, of course, but is a strong sin­gle met­ric that tends to re­flect on the rest of phys­i­cal health. What the re­searchers de­ter­mined was that chil­dren in eco­nom­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged house­holds are at a higher risk of hav­ing low mus­cle strength as they age. It also ap­pears that this is true even if those adults have far bet­ter eco­nomic liv­ing con­di­tions than they did as chil­dren.

The rea­son be­hind the ef­fect ap­pears to be tied to the pres­ence of chronic stress in child­hood. With con­tin­ued stress, the body’s re­spon­sive­ness to ill­ness and dis­ease is weak­ened. It also ap­pears to stay that way over time, dam­aged at a fun­da­men­tal level, with the body un­able to re­verse that dam­age com­pletely even as life may seem to im­prove for those same peo­ple as they grow up to be adults.

The mea­sure­ments for the test were done us­ing a por­ta­ble dy­namome­ter and by mea­sur­ing par­tic­i­pants’ grip strength. To de­fine the eco­nomic sta­tus of those par­tic­i­pants as chil­dren, the re­searchers noted the oc­cu­pa­tion of the pri­mary earner in the child’s house­hold, the qual­ity of hous­ing, the ra­tio of the num­ber of peo­ple in the home to the num­ber of rooms, and the es­ti­mated num­ber of books in the home.

As lead au­thor Boris Che­val, a post­doc­toral re­searcher at the Univer­sity of Geneva in Switzer­land, said, “The re­sults showed that peo­ple who faced poor so­cioe­co­nomic cir­cum­stances in child­hood had on av­er­age less mus­cu­lar strength than those who were bet­ter off in their early years.” He also noted that “even when ad­justed to take into ac­count so­cioe­co­nomic fac­tors and health be­hav­iors (phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity, to­bacco, al­co­hol, nutri­tion) in adult­hood, as­so­ci­a­tions re­mained very sig­nif­i­cant, es­pe­cially among women, who were of­ten less sus­cep­ti­ble to ben­e­fit from so­cial mo­bil­ity.”

The the­ory Che­val’s team ap­plied is that when there is stress in child­hood, there is also a cor­re­spond­ing phys­i­o­log­i­cal re­sponse in the child. The in­flam­ma­tory and im­mune sys­tems are af­fected, as is the gen­eral health sta­tus. Co-au­thor Stephane Cul­lati, also a re­searcher at the Univer­sity of Geneva, ob­served that “a grow­ing body of sci­en­tific ev­i­dence in­di­cates that the so­cial is in­car­nated in the body, and thus shows the ur­gency, when it comes to health, to con­sider in­di­vid­u­als un­der all of their life cir­cum­stances.” It was also of note, she said, that “our re­sults show a no­table dif­fer­ence be­tween coun­tries: Scan­di­na­vians are gen­er­ally in bet­ter health, re­gard­less of their so­cioe­co­nomic level. They also live in the most egal­i­tar­ian coun­tries in terms of ac­cess to health care and ed­u­ca­tion.”

Al­though not a dis­cus­sion point in the study here, one re­lated con­clu­sion that could eas­ily be made re­lates to mat­ters of pub­lic pol­icy in the care of chil­dren in par­tic­u­lar. Be­cause adult health is so de­pen­dent on chil­dren’s eco­nomic sta­bil­ity, it is im­por­tant for state, pro­vin­cial and fed­eral agen­cies world­wide to en­sure wher­ever pos­si­ble that chil­dren are able to grow up in a world as free from haz­ardous stress as pos­si­ble. It also points to the cor­re­spond­ing long-term se­ri­ous ef­fects of cut­backs in sup­port of chil­dren’s health care and gen­eral eco­nomic sup­port for the poor, such as has al­ready be­gun to take place rapidly as part of the lat­est fed­eral pro­gram cuts pro­posed by Don­ald Trump.

The United States is one of the rich­est na­tions on Earth, with a GDP per capita even above that of megarich Saudi Ara­bia, yet more than 25% of Amer­i­can chil­dren live in poverty due to the in­equal­ity in­her­ent in un­bri­dled cap­i­tal­ism. The child poverty rate in the United States is even worse than that of eco­nom­i­cally chal­lenged Greece and is only a lit­tle be­low Mex­ico’s.

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