Study confirms childhood experience, future ties

Misfortune in one’s childhood can have enduring, life-long effects, according to new research by Baylor sociology assistant professor Dr. Lindsay Wilkinson.

Wilkinson’s research with Purdue University professor Dr. Kenneth Ferraro and University of Toronto professor Dr. Markus Schafer was published in the February 2016 edition of the American Sociological Review.

“We discover that exposure to adversity early in life, such as frequent abuse by parents, affects health decades later,” Wilkinson said. “Interestingly, we found that childhood disadvantage not only predicted health problems observed at the initial interview, but new health problems that developed over the next decade.”

The study found that growing up with socioeconomic disadvantage and child abuse are both factors that are associated with health problems, fewer social resources as an adult and lifestyle risks, like smoking and obesity.

“This research advances knowledge on the importance of early life conditions,” Wilkinson said. “The study suggests that the origin of existing and new health problems in adulthood can be traced back to childhood. By improving our understanding of this relationship, we can potentially intervene and reduce the risk of poor health among those exposed to adversity early in life.”

Data for the study was drawn from Midlife Development in the United States, a national longitudinal study of health and wellbeing. Wilkinson began this study while she was a graduate student at Purdue University. Now that the study has been published by the American Sociological Review, Wilkinson hopes to pursue new research on the topic.

“There is still a lot to be learned about how childhood conditions exact long-term effects on health,” Wilkinson said.

The American Sociological Review is a prestigious sociology journal. Sociology department chair Dr. Carson Mencken said, it’s been 30 years since a Baylor professor’s work was published in the American Sociological Review.

“The American Sociological Review is the top journal in the field of sociology,” Mencken said. “Less than five percent of the manuscripts that are submitted to that journal are accepted for publication, and they probably get 500 submissions a year.”

Sociology professor Matt Bradshaw said Wilkinson’s study is an important contribution to our understanding of social influences on health, and that sociological research on health has many important implications for society.

“This research helps policymakers and health care professionals, who are working to reduce the impact of social conditions and stressors on the health of citizens through policies at the local, state and national levels,” Bradshaw said.

By gaining a better understanding of the relationship between childhood disadvantage and health, Wilkinson said the risk of health problems can be reduced before they develop.

“Sociological research on health is helping to identify fundamental causes of health problems,” Bradshaw said, “which opens the possibility of changing social structures in ways that prevent problems before they arise. This will not only alleviate pain and suffering, it is also more cost effective.”