Research highlight

Childhood risk factors predict adult economic burden

Nature Human Behaviour

December 13, 2016

It is possible to predict, in childhood, the segment of the population that will go on to account for the largest portion of economically burdensome outcomes, such as welfare use, obesity or criminal activity, in adulthood, suggests a paper in Nature Human Behaviour. The study has implications for policymakers and health professionals who seek to fine-tune early-life interventions in order to reap positive results decades later.

Avshalom Caspi, Terrie Moffitt and colleagues linked multiple administrative databases with data from the Dunedin Longitudinal Study, a birth cohort study of 1,037 New Zealanders assessed regularly between the ages of 3 and 38 years old. The authors show that nearly 80% of adult economic burden can be attributed to just 20% of the population and that this group can be identified with high accuracy from as early as three years of age. They find that members of this ‘high cost’ group tended to have grown up in more socioeconomically deprived environments, experienced child maltreatment, scored poorly on childhood IQ tests and exhibited low childhood self-control. The authors also find that, in this study, the ‘high cost’ group accounted for 81% of criminal convictions, 66% of welfare benefits, 78% of prescription fills and 40% of excess obese kilograms.

As a majority of the ‘high cost’ group began life at a severe disadvantage, including a heavy handicap in brain health, the authors argue that these individuals should not be held responsible for their related economic burden. Instead, the authors suggest that ameliorating the effects of childhood disadvantage could have benefits for all members of society, with the study highlighting the potential for childhood interventions to improve adult health and social wellbeing, whilst also making large reductions in economic burden.

doi: 10.1038/s41562-016-0005

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