Adult Good Health Largely Determined by the First Ten Years of Life
When we talk about health, we generally talk about it as momentary or cumulative — a bad flu, or years of lifestyle catching up to us. But new research is suggesting that by age ten, the foundations for a healthy, or unhealthy, life are already laid.
And much of this baseline is outside children’s — possibly families’ — control. While socio-economic status is known to influence health, the study, by researchers at the University of Geneva, examined data from more than 24,000 people aged 50 to 96 living in 14 European countries to fill in a gap between economic vulnerability in childhood and the health of older adults.
“The results showed that people who faced poor socio-economic circumstances in childhood had on average less muscular strength than those who were better off in their early years,” explained researcher Boris Cheval. Muscle strength is an acknowledged indicator of overall health. “Even when adjusted to take into account socioeconomic factors and health behaviours (physical activity, tobacco, alcohol, nutrition) in adulthood, associations remained very significant, especially among women, who were often less susceptible to benefit from social mobility.”
Even more concerning, researchers said, is that this risk doesn’t diminish as socio-economic status improves later in life; inequalities in childhood quite literally “get into the skin.” They suggest poorer socio-economic circumstances might correlate with childhood exposure to chronic stress, which might alter an individual’s physiological response to stress, affecting in particular the functioning of the immune and inflammatory systems.
It’s one of many studies to trace the source of good health farther back than we’re used to considering. Other scientists suggest the roots extend into the previous generation — prior to pregnancy. A recent paper authored by researchers at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) and the University of Melbourne brought together data from around 200 countries and from more than 140 recent research papers to argue adolescent lifestyles of current youth will set the stage for their offspring’s health down the line. They examined nurture, rather than nature, looking at mechanisms (other than genes) for how health and growth was transmitted between generations, including changes in a father’s sperm or a mother’s ovum, maternal influences around the time of conception and in later pregnancy, and parenting in the first two years after birth.
The authors specifically called out, in high income regions, mental health, obesity and substance abuse as areas that could, starting from parents’ adolescence, affect children’s health. In lower income countries, the paper recommended major actions around ending child marriage, delaying first pregnancy through contraception and girls staying in school, and tackling under-nutrition.
Perhaps most astonishingly, the paper called for an extended definition of adolescence — from age 10 to 24, roughly when physical and neurological growth completes — that could give society a larger window to address individuals’ health, life skills, habits and, perhaps socio-economic footing, in a way that ensures the health of the next generation.
“Today’s adolescents will be the largest generation to become parents in human history,” said George Patton, the paper’s lead author. “We need to invest in their physical, social and emotional development to guarantee not only their own future health but that of their children.”