Cumulative Adversity in Childhood and Emergent Risk Factors for Long-Term Health

Three children playing in a community garden.

Exposure to childhood adversity found strongly related to behavior problems in children.

The Issue:

Children exposed to adversity can carry the physical or psychological effects long past their youth, influencing their health into adulthood. By identifying risks for adult chronic disease that have their roots in childhood, interventions can be designed to address the social determinants related to those risk factors.

Researchers examined the relationship of cumulative adversity in the first 11 years of life with three childhood markers of adult chronic diseases—obesity, high blood pressure and behavior problems. Adversity was marked by family instability, legal and money problems; child physical and sexual abuse; and neighborhood disadvantage.

Key Findings

  • At 7 years old, children exposed to high adversity had elevated body mass indexes (BMIs) and behavior problems, but not elevated blood pressure.

  • At 11 years, adversity was not predictive of changes in BMI or blood pressure, but did predict increases in behavior problems.

Conclusion:

Interventions to address adversity in childhood could influence multiple risk factors of chronic diseases early, rather than trying to change individual health risk factors in adulthood when people are more resistant to change.

About the Study:

As part of a larger study, researchers followed 3,348 children in England to age 11, focusing on changes in three markers of adult chronic disease at ages 7 and 11.