Poverty in early childhood associated with premature death in adults
The Sector > Research > Poverty in early childhood associated with premature death in adults

Poverty in early childhood associated with premature death in adults

by Freya Lucas

September 08, 2022

Experiencing poverty in early childhood can correlate with greater chances of premature death in adulthood, compared with other adverse childhood experiences, according to a study of more than 46,000 people by researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the USA.


Compared to children who did not experience early life adversity, childhood poverty combined with crowded housing was associated with a 41 per cent higher risk for premature death, and early poverty combined with separation from a parent was associated with a 50 per cent increase in premature death. 


Those who experienced parental harshness and neglect had a 16 per cent higher risk of premature death, and those who experienced family instability had a 28 per cent higher risk for premature death.


The findings build upon earlier studies that linked individual types of adverse childhood experiences to risk of death, as well as other studies that demonstrated that death risk rose as exposure to childhood adversity increased. The current study identifies links between combinations of early childhood adversity and the overall chances of premature death.


“Understanding how patterns of early childhood adversity are associated with shortened life expectancy helps us better understand the toll of early experiences on human health and the extent that this toll carries over from childhood through adulthood,” senior author Dr Stephen E. Gilmanat NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) explained. 


“In the long run, we hope that results such as ours can inform efforts to develop better interventions that would both reduce exposure to childhood adversity and reduce the health consequences of early adversity among exposed children.”


To reach their findings, the researchers compared data from US death records compiled from 1979 to 2016 to data that assessed the children’s experiences from when they were born, from 1959 to 1966, through to seven years of age. 


Among the 46,129 study participants in the analysis, 3,344 deaths occurred. Based on questionnaire information and other data collected from the participants’ mothers, the researchers developed five classifications of early childhood adversity:


  • Low adversity: unlikely to have experienced any significant childhood adverse events (48 per cent of participants)
  • Parental harshness and neglect: likely to have experienced such adverse events as parental physical or emotional harshness and physical neglect (4 per cent of participants)
  • Family instability: likely to have experienced two or more changes in their parents’ marital status, parental divorce or separation, frequent changes in residence, a parent’s or sibling’s death, or foster care (9 per cent of participants)
  • Poverty and crowded housing: likely to have experienced poverty and crowded housing conditions (21 per cent of participants)
  • Poverty and parental separation: likely to have experienced poverty, welfare receipt, parental divorce or separation, and marital and residential changes (19 per cent of participants).


In addition to the higher death risk of those in the latter four classes, premature death risk increased with the number of adverse childhood experiences. Individuals with two adverse experiences had a 27 per cent higher risk of early death; three adverse experiences, a 29 per cent higher death risk; and four adverse experiences, a 45 per cent higher risk.


Access the study in full here

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