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How a Rough Childhood Hurts Your Health, Decades Later

The consequences of early poverty and abuse are far-reaching, but there are ways to make up for a childhood that you didn't ask for.
(Photo: Rebecca Sims/Flickr)

(Photo: Rebecca Sims/Flickr)

Pop psychology has taught us to look to our childhoods for the roots of many of our adult behaviors. Depressed? Maybe your dysfunctional family has something to do with it. Anxious? Must be because your parents fought all the time. But the consequences of childhood adversity extend beyond mental health; a rough upbringing can affect your physical health too.

That's the lesson from a recent study published in January in the journal American Sociological Review. To come to that conclusion, a team of sociologists from American and Canadian universities analyzed answers from more than 1,700 American adults who talked to surveyors twice, 10 years apart. In the first round of phone calls, those adults who said they had grown up with poverty or abuse typically suffered from more health problems. By the time of the second phone call, that subset of adults was also a bit more likely to have developed a new health problem, such as heart disease or cancer. "Many of the conditions that we see in later life don't really begin in later life," says Kenneth Ferraro, a professor at Purdue University who led the research. "They begin much earlier."

For more, we talked with Ferraro about his research, and about how people who have had tough childhoods can try to stay healthy.


What's the main takeaway from your research?

There are millions of American children that live in poverty and suffer some type of abuse, physical or emotional. There are actually long-term health consequences from those types of experiences.

I know there's a lot of research showing that Americans who are poorer also tend to be in poorer health. But you're saying, regardless of what your income is now, if you grew up poor, you're more likely to develop health problems later in life.

That is correct.

So does growing up with poverty and abuse cause health problems later in life? Or are poverty and abuse just associated with health problems later in life?

Strictly speaking, we would say that they are associated, but what's different about the study that we did is we were actually able to observe new conditions, new diseases that appeared during this 10-year window. That, I think, is stronger evidence.

Exactly how much more likely are people who experienced poverty or abuse as kids to develop more health problems as adults?

Some of the more important negative experiences during childhood were associated with one more disease [at the time of the first phone call], and, on average, another half of a disease by the follow-up study.

How can your childhood experiences affect your health so much later?

We show that having these negative experiences in childhood increased the probability of engaging in a number of behaviors in middle age that were also associated with health. For instance, persons who experienced abuse or financial strain were more likely to be smokers in adulthood and to have body mass indices that were higher, on average. They were more likely to be obese.

(Photo: Purdue University)

(Photo: Purdue University)

We also found, however, that even after you control for all these adult characteristics and resources, there was still an effect due to financial deprivation and abuse. If young people have experienced those, then, even controlling for smoking and drinking status and body mass index, they were still at higher risk of adult disease.

There really are a number of processes that are going on that increase the likelihood that these early experiences will translate into health problems later on.

What's an example of a process, beyond unhealthy behaviors, that could cause a poor or abused kid to have more health problems as an adult?

One of the things that we have also looked at is psychological resources. So, if you're a child and you are exposed to a noxious type of environment—a risky family, a dysfunctional household, maybe there's abuse—it's very easy to think that life's out of control. That whole sense of personal control in your own life is really important. We found that people who, even though they experienced those negative events, had some degree of personal control, were much less likely to develop new health conditions. They weren't totally immune, but it reduced the risk.

Everybody wants to be healthy, but you can't change what kind of childhood you have. What are things people can do to help them stay healthier?

One of the things that we think is really important is getting with somebody else who's had that same experience and learning from them the kinds of things they did to help them become resilient.

My wife and I have been foster parents to a number of children over the years and we've found, in keeping in contact with some of those former foster children, that a good occupation—not just a job, but having a career—really helps people.

There are many different ways that people can try to deal with the negative experiences they've had. I don't think it's one size fits all.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.