Trajectories of childhood adversity and mortality in early adulthood: a population-based cohort study

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Background: Childhood is a sensitive period with rapid brain development and physiological growth, and adverse events in childhood might interfere with these processes and have long-lasting effects on health. In this study, we aimed to describe trajectories of adverse childhood experiences and relate these to overall and cause-specific mortality in early adult life. Methods: For this population-based cohort study, we used unselected annually updated data from Danish nationwide registers covering more than 1 million children born between 1980 and 1998. We distinguished between three different dimensions of childhood adversities: poverty and material deprivation, loss or threat of loss within the family, and aspects of family dynamics such as maternal separation. We used a group-based multi-trajectory clustering model to define the different trajectories of children aged between 0 and 16 years. We assessed the associations between these trajectories and mortality rates between 16 and 34 years of age using a Cox proportional hazards model and an Aalen hazards difference model. Findings: Between Jan 1, 1980 and Dec 31, 2015, 2 223 927 children were included in the Danish Life Course cohort. We excluded 1 064 864 children born after 1998, 50 274 children who emigrated before their 16th birthday, and 11 161 children who died before their 16th birthday, resulting in a final sample of 1 097 628 children. We identified five distinct trajectories of childhood adversities. Compared with children with a low adversity trajectory, those who had early-life material deprivation (hazard ratio 1·38, 95% CI 1·27–1·51), persistent deprivation (1·77, 1·62–1·93), or loss or threat of loss (1·80, 1·61–2·00) had a moderately higher risk of premature mortality. A small proportion of children (36 081 [3%]) had multiple adversities within all dimensions and throughout the entire childhood. This group had a 4·54 times higher all-cause mortality risk (95% CI 4·07–5·06) than that of children with a low adversity trajectory, corresponding to 10·30 (95% CI 9·03–11·60) additional deaths per 10 000 person-years. Accidents, suicides, and cancer were the most common causes of death in this high adversity population. Interpretation: Almost half of Danish children in our study experienced some degree of adversity, and this was associated with a moderately higher risk of mortality in adulthood. Among these, a small group of children had multiple adversities across social, health, and family-related dimensions. This group had a markedly higher mortality risk in early adulthood than that of other children, which requires public health attention. Funding: None.

Original languageEnglish
JournalThe Lancet
Issue number10249
Pages (from-to)489-497
Number of pages9
Publication statusPublished - 2020

ID: 248143522