Childhood lays the foundation for health in adulthood and is central to physical and cognitive development. If this development is disrupted either through poverty or traumatic events, there may be long-term consequences for physical and mental health later in life.
In a new Danish study, a research team from the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen found that adversity in childhood drastically increases the risk of premature death in early adulthood (16-36 years of age). This included a greater risk for dying from suicide, accidents and cancer.
The findings are published in the journal The Lancet.
The researchers analyzed social and stressful adversity in childhood among one million Danish children. Social adversity was defined as financial poverty or long-term unemployment in the family, while stressful adversity included situations such as the death of a parent, divorce or alcohol/drug abuse among the parents.
“We divided the children into five groups depending on the degree of adversity experienced in childhood. The more stressful experiences they have experienced during childhood, the higher the mortality rate in early adulthood. For the most vulnerable children, the mortality rate is, surprisingly, 4.5 times higher,” said Professor Naja Hulvej Rod from the Department of Public Health.
The higher mortality rate primarily manifests itself in suicide and accidents, but the study also reveals a higher risk of dying from cancer in this group.
According to the researchers, the study findings shed light on the critical importance of broad structural public-health initiatives to reduce stressful adversity in childhood. For example, if we can help prevent poverty and other childhood adversities, it may help reduce social inequalities in health over time.
“It is striking to see such a strong connection between adversity in childhood and mortality in the Danish welfare state, which among other things aims to promote financial stability among families with young children and to minimise social adversity. From an international perspective, you may worry that these associations are even stronger in a less extensive welfare system,” said Hulvej Rod.
The research is the first of its kind on a global basis. The size of the study made it possible for the research team to look at any associations between incidents of social and stressful adversity throughout childhood and how it affects death rates among young adults.
In the study, social adversity included financial poverty or long-term unemployment in the family. Stressful adversity included incidents such as divorce, alcohol/drug abuse among the parents or the death of a parent. The children were divided into 5 groups.
The first group included children (54%) who had experienced no or only very few isolated incidents of adversity in childhood.
In groups two through four, the kids (43%) had experienced isolated incidents of adversity in childhood, mainly related to poverty or illness in the family. Among kids in these groups, the researchers found a mortality rate in early adulthood that was 1.3 to 1.8 times higher than in the first group.
Group five involved children (3%) who had experienced great social and stressful adversity throughout childhood. In this group, the mortality rate was 4.5 times higher than those in group one.
Source: PsychCentral Childhood Adversity Can Multiply Risk of Early Death