Wayne State University

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Study by Drs. Hector Gonzalez and Mary Bowen links early childhood socioeconomic factors and later life disability

Posted on: Monday, May 17, 2010
Hector González

Having parents with a low level of education or an absent or deceased father during childhood may raise a person's risk for being disabled later in life, a recent study by two Wayne State researchers suggests.

Principal investigator Mary Bowen, Ph.D., former National Institute on Aging postdoctoral research fellow at WSU and current resident of Tampa, Fla., and co-author Hector González, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Institute of Gerontology and the Department of Family Medicine and Public Health Sciences in WSU's School of Medicine and resident of Chelsea, Mich., were published in the American Journal of Public Health for their study examining early childhood economic conditions and risk for disability in older adulthood.

With much of the available literature on disability focused on the role of midlife diseases, Bowen and González took a unique life-course approach to the topic. "This study set out to determine if early life conditions contribute to the risk for developing a disability, and if so, what those risk factors are," González said.

The study utilized data from the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative study that followed more than 18,000 Americans, 51 and older, over the course of eight years. Using generalized linear latent and mixed-model commands for their statistical analysis, they examined the early-life parameters of parental education ranging from zero to 17 years, as well as the father's occupation when the respondent was 16 years old. They factored in respondents' social mobility- education, income and wealth - and health behaviors - smoking, drinking, exercising and body weight - throughout their life, examining whether these factors mediated the effect of early life conditions. Analyses adjusted for the predisposition for certain forms of disability caused by characteristics such as age, gender, ethnicity and disease, and tracked the changes from baseline measurements over the course of the study.

The study found that respondents whose fathers had low levels of education and those whose fathers were absent or had died while they were growing up were at an increased risk of disability later in life. Mother's education was an early influence of disability risk, but disappeared once other social mobility factors came into play. Additionally, respondents whose fathers were either farmers or farm managers had a lower risk for disability.

Bowen and González said the study suggests that early socioeconomic conditions play a role in a person's risk for disability that persists throughout the course of their life. "Our research strengthens the argument that poor conditions during childhood can put you on a path of heightened risk for health problems," said Bowen, who is now a patient-safety research fellow at James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa, Fla. "This isn't to say that people who grow up with certain socioeconomic risk factors are going to be disabled, but it does provide evidence they will be at a disadvantage. This is most likely due to the lowered access to good nutrition and to important health information characteristic of people living in poverty."

Bowen and González say their study adds to the growing body of research supporting a shift toward preventative medicine in the U.S., with a particular focus on policies that provide low-income families with vital social resources, including adequate nutrition and access to education. "Caring for those with disabilities places a substantial burden on the health care system, which, as our population continues to age, is only going to get larger," González said. "Taking steps early on to ensure that at-risk families have access to the resources they need could significantly reduce the number of older adults with disabilities and ultimately reduce the amount of money we spend on health care in the U.S."