Study of one million Danish children: Childhood adversity increases the risk of early death

August 19, 2020

In many ways, our childhood lays the foundation of our health in adult life. It is central to our physical and cognitive development. If this development is disturbed, it may have long-term consequences for our physical and mental health later in life.

In a new study, researchers from the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen show that adversity in childhood increases the risk of premature death in early adulthood (16-36 years of age).

The researchers have recorded social and stressful adversity* in childhood among one million Danish children.

'We divided the children into five groups depending on the degree of adversity experienced in childhood. The more stressful experiences they have experienced during childhood, the higher the mortality rate in early adulthood. For the most vulnerable children, the mortality rate is surprisingly 4.5 times higher', says Professor Naja Hulvej Rod from the Department of Public Health.

The higher mortality rate mainly manifests itself in suicide and accidents, but the study also shows a higher risk of dying from cancer in this group.

Poverty in Childhood Does Not Rhyme with Welfare State

According to the researchers, the results of the study stress the critical importance of broad structural public-health initiatives to reduce stressful adversity in childhood. For example, prevention of childhood poverty and other adversity in childhood. With time, it may help reduce social inequality in health.

'It is striking to see such a strong connection between adversity in childhood and mortality in the Danish welfare state, which among other things aims to promote financial stability among families with young children and to minimise social adversity. From an international perspective, you may worry that these associations are even stronger in a less extensive welfare system', says Naja Hulvej Rod.

The study is the first of its kind on a global basis. The size of the study has made it possible for the researchers to study the associations between incidents of social and stressful adversity throughout childhood and how it affects mortality rates among young adults.

*In the study, social adversity is defined as financial poverty or long-term unemployment in the family, while stressful adversity includes e.g. death of a parent, divorce or alcohol/drug abuse among the parents.

Group 1: 54 % of the children experienced no or only very few isolated incidents of adversity in childhood.

Groups 2-4: 43 % of the children experienced isolated incidents of adversity in childhood, mainly related to poverty or illness in the family. Here the researchers found a mortality rate in early adulthood that is 1.3-1.8 times higher than in Group 1.

Group 5: 3 % experienced great social and stressful adversity throughout childhood. In this group, the mortality rate is 4.5 times higher than in Group 1.

University of Copenhagen The Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences

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