Childhood Economic Stability Found to Be Key to Adult Health
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.