Child poverty hurts health even in wealth

TheStarPhoenix.com – business
May 26, 2011.   By Mark Lemstra, Special to The StarPheonix

Previous articles have described the impact of poverty and deprivation on health outcomes for children in Saskatoon.

For example, children born in Saskatoon’s low-income neighbourhoods are 448 per cent more likely to die in their first year compared with children born elsewhere.

Research has shown that, even among those who live, low-income youth in Saskatoon are much more likely to have depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and so on, as well as being more likely to engage in risk behaviours such as drug use and alcohol abuse.

One question that is rarely discussed, however, is what happens to the health status of low-income children when they grow up?

Are the poor health outcomes they experience as children permanent? What happens if a low-income child manages to become a middle-income adult?

These questions have been answered in a number of prospective, longitudinal studies that have followed large groups of children over long periods of time into their adulthood.

In general, the bad news is that the negative health impacts of youth growing up in poverty extend into their adult lives. The good news is that some of these adverse health outcomes can be attenuated through appropriate social policy.

A systematic literature review published in Epidemiologic Reviews analyzed all of the high-quality studies on this topic and found that children that grow up in poverty are more likely to die prematurely and have more disease in adulthood, even after statistically adjusting for their economic position in adulthood.

Youth growing up in deprivation were not only more likely to die prematurely as adults from all-cause mortality, cardiovascular mortality and overall cancer mortality but they were also more likely to die prematurely from accidents, violent deaths and alcohol and drug-related causes.

Once again, the significant part of this analysis was the increased risk of health problems and premature death observed in adulthood, due to childhood deprivation, even after statistically controlling for income, education and employment status during adulthood.

In other words, child poverty has significant impact on negative health outcomes even if a child becomes more affluent as an adult.

Let’s review one study in more detail that was published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

This study followed 128,723 children for 30 years into their adulthood. One interesting finding was that premature cardiovascular mortality was more strongly related with childhood poverty than it was with adult social circumstances.

For example, a child growing up in poverty was 179 per cent more likely to die prematurely from cardiovascular disease. In comparison, an adult who was poor, but did not grow up in deprivation, was only 121 per cent more likely to die earlier than expected.

As such, the authors conclude that: “Current changes in mortality rates for cardiovascular disease reflect in part social changes that occurred decades ago.”

That said, the highest risk of premature mortality among men and women was observed in the group who were poor both in childhood and in adulthood.

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