(CN) – A study released Tuesday links economic vulnerability in childhood to health issues in late adulthood.
In the report, researchers find children from disadvantaged households are at greater risk of low muscle strength as they age, a solid indicator of their overall health. This risk is not mitigated by economic success as adults, which demonstrates that the first years of life are critical to long-term health.
This association is the result of chronic stress in childhood changing the body’s ability to remain healthy over time, according to the study published Tuesday in the journal Age and Ageing.
To investigate this dynamic, the researchers analyzed data from more than 24,000 people aged 50 to 96 who participated in the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe, a 12-year population survey conducted by the European Union. The survey examines the health, social and economic status of older people from 14 EU states.
Participants’ grip strength was measured using a portable dynamometer, a device that calculates power output. The team then compared the data to four indicators of participants’ socioeconomic status at age 10. The indicators included the number of books at home, the primary breadwinner’s occupation, the quality of housing, and the ratio of inhabitants to rooms.
“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,” said lead author Boris Cheval, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Geneva in Switzerland.
“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.”
Social epidemiology research often focuses on the indirect effects of social determinants of health – a person’s behaviors are influenced by socioeconomic status, for example.
“Beyond that, our study suggests a direct, biological and lasting effect of a poor start in life,” said Cheval. “To explain our findings, we hypothesize a physiological deregulation induced by chronic stress due to the difficult circumstances of childhood.”
Research shows that the physiological response to stress develops in childhood. Early and chronic stress can therefore adjust the system’s response to stress, which particularly impacts the functioning of the inflammatory and immune systems and general health status.
Socioeconomic status in adulthood is also strongly correlated with objective muscle strength, according to the report.
“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,” said co-author Stephane Cullati, a researcher at the University of Geneva.
“In addition, 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.”
The team will continue its research to determine how socioeconomic systems reduce the correlation between an underprivileged childhood and poor health later in life.