Childhood adversity and adult health: Evaluating intervening mechanisms.

Journal Article (Journal Article)

Substantial evidence has accumulated supporting a causal link between childhood adversity and risk for poor health years and even decades later. One interpretation of this evidence is that this linkage arises largely or exclusively from a process of biological embedding that is not modifiable by subsequent social context or experience - implying childhood as perhaps the only point at which intervention efforts are likely to be effective. This paper considers the extent to which this long-term association arises from intervening differences in social context and/or environmental experiences - a finding that would suggest that post-childhood prevention efforts may also be effective. Based on the argument that the selected research definition of adult health status may have implications for the early adversity-adult health linkage, we use a representative community sample of black and white adults (N = 1252) to evaluate this relationship across three health indices: doctor diagnosed illnesses, self-rated health, and allostatic load. Results generally indicate that observed relationships between childhood adversity and dimensions of adult health status were totally or almost totally accounted for by variations in adult socioeconomic position (SEP) and adult stress exposure. One exception is the childhood SEP-allostatic load association, for which a statistically significant relationship remained in the context of adult stress and SEP. This lone finding supports a conclusion that the impact of childhood adversity is not always redeemable by subsequent experience. However, in general, analyses suggest the likely utility of interventions beyond childhood aimed at reducing exposure to social stress and improving social and economic standing. Whatever the effects on adult health that derive from biological embedding, they appear to be primarily indirect effects through adult social context and exposure.

Full Text

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Turner, RJ; Thomas, CS; Brown, TH

Published Date

  • May 2016

Published In

Volume / Issue

  • 156 /

Start / End Page

  • 114 - 124

PubMed ID

  • 27030896

Electronic International Standard Serial Number (EISSN)

  • 1873-5347

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 0277-9536

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

  • 10.1016/j.socscimed.2016.02.026


  • eng