Early Childhood Poverty and Adult Body Mass Index

Children from households that are among the most impoverished during their prenatal and first year of life are more likely to be obese as adults. Income transfers to these particular households at these key times may have a lifelong impact on health, according to this analysis of data from a U.S. public health longitudinal survey.

Early childhood poverty is well-documented as a key predictor in adult health and welfare, but this study's goal was to estimate the link between early childhood income and later-life body mass. Data from the U.S. Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), the longest running longitudinal look at household income in the United States, provided a sample of 885 adults who were between 30-37 years old in 2005 and whose household income and BMI had been tracked fairly consistently.

Key Findings:

  • Adults who spent their prenatal and birth year in households with incomes less than $25,000 had the highest BMIs and were more likely to be overweight and morbidly obese.
  • This was true regardless of whether these households increased their incomes as these children grew older.
  • Income in other childhood stages did not have a significant association with BMI.
  • A $10,000 increase in annual household income in a child’s prenatal and birth years significantly reduced the likelihood of his or her being overweight or obese as an adult.

Although limitations in PSID data do not allow for analysis of how the factors of early poverty have an impact on adult BMI, the authors note their results are consistent with the theory that “fetal programming,” set by early stimulants and insults, has long-lasting implications. Given the health implications of adult obesity, targeting social income transfer programs at the most economically disadvantaged households with the youngest children may offer the largest benefit for health and well-being.