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Does childhood poverty affect respiratory health in mid-life?

Author: Melanie Bartley
Type of case study: Research

About the research

We are often told that how we live our lives has an impact on our long-term health, whether it is what we eat, where we live, our socio-economic position or our behaviour. Previous studies have established that disadvantaged social class is associated with a range of biological outcomes in mid-life.

Researchers from University College London and the University of Essex took a similar approach, investigating the link between a specific measure of socio-economic circumstance in early life (paternal social class and financial difficulties) and mid-life lung function. The researchers chose this measure because social position in childhood is known to be strongly related to environmental and occupational risk exposures throughout life such as poor housing, environmental fumes and dust.

This research, undertaken as part of the ESRC’s International Centre for Lifecourse Studies’ programme, found that family financial difficulties up to age 11 are linked to a series of adversities throughout life, such as poorer housing conditions in childhood, lower educational achievement, a less advantaged social position as an adult and smoking. They discovered that 63 per cent of the relationship between childhood poverty and lung function in mid-life is explained by exposure to these factors. The strong association between financial hardship and poor housing had a direct impact on lung health 30 years later, but also damaged educational performance, which in turn strongly affected the likelihood of smoking.

The findings suggest that if policies are developed to break or weaken the link between poor housing and its effects, mid-life lung health could be improved for those who experienced financial hardship as a child.


This research used waves 0 (birth), 1 (age 7), 2 (age 11), 6 (age 42) and 7 (age 44-46) of the National Child Development Study, including the biomedical data collected with wave 7.

Childhood poverty was measured using parental social class at birth and reported financial difficulties at ages 7 and 11. Educational attainment was measured by using the highest qualification gained by age 42 and social class at that age was used to determine adult social position. Smoking was measured by number of cigarettes smoked per day over the years.

Respiratory function at mid-life was measured by using the Forced Expiratory Volume in 1 second (FEV1) measured for the biomedical survey in wave 7.

The researchers used an analytic strategy using ANOVA models and then conducted further investigation into the direct and indirect effects using path modelling in MPlus.


Bartley, M., Sacker, A. and Kelly, Y. (2012) ‘Early life financial adversity and respiratory function in midlife: A prospective birth cohort study’, American Journal of Epidemiology, 175(1), pp. 33-42. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwr284 Retrieved 6 September 2013 from