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Muhammad Ali once described old age as “a record of one’s whole life.” But childhood may encompass some of the most pivotal aspects of that record.
Two decades worth of research points to a formidable link between our earliest life experiences and our health in old age. Scientists have associated a childhood spent in poverty, for example, with a variety of medical conditions at age 50 and older.
Investigators are mining massive longitudinal data sets that tie our earliest life experiences to the quality of our physical and cognitive health in late life. In addition to a breadth of psychology specialties, this integrative research incorporates epigenetics, epidemiology, endocrinology, molecular biology, and several other fields. The body of work correlates specific aging-related illnesses with adverse childhood experiences, often independent of circumstances later in life.
Findings suggest that childhood deprivation can leave a particularly deep imprint on women’s health late in life, in part through cultural influences.
The role of socioeconomics
Among the longitudinal data mines yielding new insights on childhood experience and late-life health is the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE), part of the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures funded by the European Commission, the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research, and the U.S. National Institute on Aging. Since 2004, SHARE has been tracking 140,000 people age 50 and older in Europe. The study began with 11 Western European countries and has incorporated Eastern European nations in subsequent waves.
SHARE’s ambidirectional design—both retrospective and prospective in scope—is one of the study’s outstanding features, said Boris Cheval, a University of Geneva psychological scientist who has produced many findings using SHARE data.
“It allows us to examine the association between early-life SEC [socioeconomic circumstances] and the evolution on multiple health indicators (physical health, cognitive health, mental health) across aging (i.e., from 50 to 96 years),” Cheval told the Observer via email. “This is not possible with most of the prospective cohort designs that have a shorter follow-up (e.g., between 15 years).”
Using SHARE, Cheval has worked with researchers from a breadth of scientific fields to glean insights into possible predictors of health status in old age. He and his colleagues have applied four indicators of the SEC in which participants grew up:
occupational position of the household’s main earner
number of books in the home
overcrowding in the home
“The use of these rich indicators of early-life SEC is really nice in comparison with most data sets that often have a crude assessment of early-life SEC, such as the main occupation of the father only,” Cheval explained.
This research has uncovered several physical and cognitive conditions that correlate with the four childhood circumstances. Some of the most disturbing health problems—respiratory problems, cognitive deficits, muscle weakness—are seen in people who reported growing up in low-income settings, noted University of Ottawa neuroscientist Matthieu P. Boisgontier, who collaborates with Cheval (Cheval et al., 2018, 2019).
One study found that people who grew up in more affluent households had a heightened risk for certain cancers after age 50—skin and breast cancer among women and colon and rectal cancer among men. Those results held even after the researchers adjusted for SEC in adulthood. But the research team acknowledged that the results may be skewed by socioeconomic differences in health behaviorsthat make it harder to detect cancer; for example, poorer adults face more barriers to early screening, so their cancer simply may go undiagnosed (van der Linden et al., 2018).