5 Ways Childhood Conditions Impact Health in Adulthood

October 26, 2019
Laura Joszt, MA
Laura Joszt, MA
Laura Joszt, MA

Laura is the editorial director of The American Journal of Managed Care® (AJMC®) and all its brands, including The American Journal of Accountable Care®, Evidence-Based Oncology™, and The Center for Biosimilars®. She has been working on AJMC® since 2014 and has been with AJMC®'s parent company, MJH Life Sciences, since 2011. She has an MA in business and economic reporting from New York University.

Childhood conditions can have a long-lasting impact on the health of those individuals into their adulthood.

The health status of adults may have been a long time coming—as long as childhood. For instance, new research has shown that socioeconomic status during childhood can impact health in adulthood, which supports the idea of the “long arm of childhood conditions.”

Here are 5 things about how childhood circumstances and health have long-lasting impacts in adulthood.

1. Socioeconomic status

Data from the German Socio-Economic Panel showed that parents’ education, which represented a primary measure of socioeconomic status in childhood, played a role in chronic diseases later in life (age 60 years and older).

The results of the study suggested that childhood is the best time to intervene. Improving socioeconomic conditions and health-relevant environments can mitigate early causes of later-life health issues.

2. Childhood trauma

Adverse experiences that children face can have important long-term impacts on health in adulthood.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) came about as a result of an obesity study in the early 1990s. That study revealed that participants who dropped out despite losing weight tended to have a history of childhood sexual abuse. ACEs look at 10 factors of trauma in 3 categories: abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction. People with a higher ACE score have a greater risk of certain health issues. A person with a score of 4 or higher has a 3 times greater risk of lung disease and smoking and a 14 times greater risk of a suicide attempt.

Another study, looking at a specific incident, found a single major trauma in childhood can cause physical and psychiatric effects that last for years. A study presented at the 175th Annual Meeting of the American Psychiatric Association studied 844 children directly exposed to the 9/11 attack (ie, they lived in an area where they were eye witnesses to or were in the dust after the tower fell) and found that they had higher rates of psychiatric disorders, physical disorders, and comorbidities compared with a control group of children who were not in direct physical danger.

3. Abuse and inflammation

The stress from childhood abuse can actually create changes in the body that lead to autoimmune disease, according to a study presented at the 2018 American College of Rheumatology/The Association of Rheumatology Health Professionals Annual Meeting.

Participants who had been exposed to the highest level of physical and emotion abuse had a more than 2-fold increase in the risk of developing systemic lupus erythematosus. The findings indicated a need to further research and understand biological and behavioral changes triggered by stress when it is combined with other environmental exposures, the researchers had said.

4. Surviving childhood cancer

People who survive childhood cancers are not necessarily out of the woods. Research published in Circulation has shown that childhood cancer survivors have an increased risk for developing cardiovascular diseases due to cancer treatment and metabolic disorders. A group of 7289 survivors were compared with 36,205 cancer-free subjects of the same age, gender, and postal code.

The researchers found a significant increase in risk of cardiovascular disease for childhood cancer survivors 10 and 15 years after index with nearly 3% of childhood cancer survivors experiencing 1 or more cardiac events compared with 1% of cancer-free subjects.

5. COPD risk factors

Some childhood factors can predispose children to develop chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and die from it, as adults. One study showed that asthma, maternal smoking, bronchitis, allergic rhinitis, and eczema in childhood increased the risk of COPD. The findings contradict previous beliefs that lung function established in childhood tracked throughout life. People who were exposed to maternal smoking and then took up smoking later had a more rapid lung function decline.

Another study has shown that long-term exposure to secondhand smoke in childhood increases the risk that those children will eventually die from COPD in adulthood. The study followed participants between the ages of 50 and 74 years old for 22 years. Those who lived with a daily smoker in their childhood had a 31% higher mortality from COPD compared with the participants who did not live with a daily smoker.