The things they carried: The biological residue of childhood misfortune

Patricia M Morton, Purdue University


There is a well-established relationship between childhood misfortune and adult health, but how these early-life experiences “get under the skin” to later manifest as poor health is less clear. To elucidate this process, this dissertation investigates (1) how childhood conditions influence immune functioning and (2) whether these physiological consequences of early misfortune lead to poor health, indicated by ischemic heart disease (IHD) onset. Guided by cumulative inequality theory and biological embedding, this dissertation also examines adult health lifestyles and socioeconomic status (SES) as possible mechanisms linking childhood misfortune to inflammation and IHD in later life. Data come from six waves of the Health and Retirement Study between 2004 and 2014, comprising a sample of over 8,000 adults aged 51 and older. The empirical investigation is presented in two main articles. The first article presented in Chapter 2 investigates the relationship between childhood misfortune and chronic inflammation, and examines mediators of adult health lifestyles and SES. Building on the findings in Chapter 2, the second article presented in Chapter 3 investigates the relationship between childhood misfortune and IHD risk, and examines mediators of adult health lifestyles, SES, and inflammation. In both articles, alternative specifications of childhood misfortune are tested. Findings from this dissertation reveal that childhood misfortune predicts higher levels of inflammation and IHD risk in later-life. For inflammation, additive childhood misfortune and lower childhood SES led to elevated levels of inflammation via adult health lifestyles and SES. For IHD risk, lower childhood SES raised IHD risk by directly impacting adult health lifestyles and SES, which subsequently led to higher levels of inflammation, resulting in onset of IHD. These findings clarify how childhood misfortune impacts health among older adults. Using multiple mediating domains to assess the long-term effects of early-life conditions can enhance health policy in an effort to reduce the associated disease burden of childhood misfortune.




Ferraro, Purdue University.

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