Does growing up in poverty predict poor health in the future?

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Despite modern medicine, many Americans are at high risk for diabetes and cancer. While your diet and lifestyle choices impact your health outcomes, a recent study suggests one overlooked factor is income inequality. A team from The Ohio State University finds children who grew up poor were more likely to have health problems such as chronic inflammation and lung issues.

“Children growing up in a period of rising income inequality seem to be particularly influenced by its negative effects,” says Hui Zheng, lead author and associate professor of sociology at Ohio State in a university release. “It has a long-term impact on their health as adults.”

The research team studied the health outcomes of Americans born between 1925 and 1999 from national datasets tracking health trends over time. One dataset came from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, which collected data on over 35,000 people from 1988 to 2018. More data came from the Panel Studies of Income Dynamics that took place between 1968 and 2013, which included information on over 12,000 adults.

Baby boomers the first to feel this drop in health?

The researchers also gathered data and how health outcomes related to a person’s household income during childhood. Since the mid-1940s, the gap in income has risen dramatically. This corresponds with the birth of the first Baby Boomers. As income inequality increased, the health of adults decreased.

For example, the study finds that for every 0.01 unit increase in income inequality, there was a three-percent increase in markers that denote poor health. The results remained the same even when the researchers took other factors into account. These include exposure to disease early in life and other socioeconomic variables. Additionally, while the researchers noted other trends that appeared at the same time as declining health — union membership, GDP rate, and unemployment — none produced a link that was stronger than income inequality.

Americans who experienced income inequality as adults rather than children had less declining health than those who experienced income inequality in childhood. The findings provide evidence backing up a theory known as the “developmental origins of health and disease.”

“This theory says that our health as adults is strongly influenced by what we experience in childhood,” Zheng says.

Another potential reason for declining health in adulthood is a population’s access to healthcare and other public health programs to maintain good health. While the researchers did not have the opportunity to study the differences in income inequality among children who were more financially well off, a prior study from Zheng suggests income inequality harms the disadvantaged groups the most.

“Without policy interventions to address high levels of inequality, young people today will continue to face the same health issues we found in this study,” Zheng advises.

The findings appear in the journal Social Science & Medicine.

About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

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