Newswise — The social settings of early life have far-reaching consequences, affecting the risk of death even decades later, according to a study of more than 5,000 men born between 1906 and 1921.
Adult mortality is the long-term outcome of a range of childhood conditions and experiences, beginning in the womb and influenced by the cumulative experiences of adulthood, say sociologists Mark D. Hayward, Ph.D., of Penn State University and Bridget K. Gorman, Ph.D., of Rice University and the University of Texas.
They found that men faced higher risks of early death if they grew up in blue-collar homes, lived in urban areas, lived with their biological fathers and stepmothers and had few economic resources.
The research appears in the journal Demography.
Other researchers have found that childhood circumstances have a cascading effect on adult life that then result in a greater risk of death. Everything from a child's education or disease exposure to parents' financial standing or birthplace can affect the later course of life.
For instance, those early circumstances might direct a young person's career choice, which in turn would dictate income, lifestyle, insurance coverage or workplace hazards, any of which might influence health and the length of life.
Hayward and Gorman's study suggests that childhood does not affect longevity in simple, straightforward ways. The health of adults appears to be the outcome of childhood circumstances plus adult socioeconomic resources and lifestyles, they say.
Hayward and Gorman evaluated data collected in the 1966 National Longitudinal Survey of Older Men. The men were then 45 to 59 years old and were followed until 1990. They were queried about social, economic and lifestyle information in adulthood, as well as their circumstances at age 15. Of the 5,000 subjects interviewed in 1966, Hayward and Gorman were able to analyze death information on 2,346.
They found that the circumstances of youth did influence outcomes later in life, from ages 45 to 83.
The men's childhood surroundings in the 1920s and 1930s reflected their times. About 28 percent lived in small towns and 35 percent lived on farms. Only 20 percent lived in cities with more than 100,000 people. Almost half the heads of their households had less than a ninth-grade education. Almost 22 percent of the men had two foreign-born parents and 60 percent of their mothers did not work outside the home. Three out of four grew up with both biological parents.
Decades later, these factors came into play at the end of their lives. Men who grew up on farms, for instance, had a better chance at a longer life than men who grew up in large cities. Those whose mothers and fathers were both immigrants had longer life expectancy than sons of native-born couples. Men from families with two biological parents had lower mortality than those from families with a step-father. The life expectancy of men from families where the head of the household worked in a white-collar job exceeded that for men from blue-collar homes.
Many of these effects, however, operated through adult achievement and lifestyles. So, men reared in white collar homes benefited from greater educational attainment, income and wealth and intrinsically rewarding jobs. Men reared in families with two biological parents or on farms were less likely to be overweight as adults, which reduced their chances of early death.
This research was partially funded by grants from the National Institute on Aging and the National Institute of Child Health and Development.