Childhood Effects on Adult Health

It has long been recognized that overall health status has a transgenerational component that often cannot be explained by genetic factors.  An article in the December issue of the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) addressed the role of prenatal and early life health on future health as adults.  The study analyzed data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID).  This US based study began in 1968 and included 18230 individuals of varying ages encompassing 4802 families.

There was annual followup with the individuals through 1997 and biennial followup afterwards.  Anyone born into or adopted by one of the original families was incorporated into the study.  When children included in the study left their parent’s home they became a new “family unit” which was included in the study going forward.

The PSID was initiated as an economic study and, therefore, included data on many of the potential confounding socioeconomic factors.  This AJPH article reviewed data from those born between 1951 and 1968 (up to age 17 at the initiation of the PSID in 1968).  Data cutoff for this study was 2007 at which time the sample ranged from 39 to 56 years in age.  The diseases surveyed included asthma, diabetes, hypertension, and other cardiovascular disease (stroke, myocardial infarction, coronary heart disease, angina, congestive heart failure).

Those adults who had been born at a low birth weight, less than 5.5 pounds, had much higher prevalence of each of the four diseases.  Even after controlling for childhood family (poverty, parental education) and neighborhood parameters, the risk of each disease was still significantly higher.  General health status in childhood also had a large, significant, and independent effect on the onset of each of the four diseases.  The authors conclude: “results provide strong support for a causal role of poor infant health (which interacts with parental socioeconomic status) on the onset of later life health conditions and mortality.”

This study underscores the importance of a wholesome, “healthy” lifestyle within the family setting and illustrates that this lifestyle should be established before the first child is conceived and maintained throughout the child rearing years.

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