Adverse events in childhood cast long shadow, conference hears
Findings show early interventions to target problems are cheaper in long run
Infancy and childhood often represent a “critical period” after which remedial treatment can be both less effective and increasingly expensive, Prof Richard Layte of the ESRI said.
Large numbers of Irish children are experiencing adverse events that cast a long shadow on their future physical and mental health, a conference has heard.
One in seven Irish nine-year-olds has experienced the divorce or separation of their parents, according to research presented at the Economic and Social Research Institute yesterday. One in eight children reported conflict between parents.
Over 28 per cent of children had suffered the death of a grandparent and 2.2 per cent had lost a parent. Some 3.5 per cent experienced drug taking or alcoholism in the family or mental disorder. In contrast, the four out of 10 children who experienced no such adverse events exhibited fewer problem behaviours.
Equality of opportunity
Infancy and childhood often represent a “critical period” after which remedial treatment can be both less effective and increasingly expensive, Prof Richard Layte of the ESRI told the conference. Children’s equality of opportunity is permanently undermined if they begin their lives at a disadvantage in terms of physical, psychological, emotional and social wellbeing.
Separate research which looked at the experience of adults aged 50-plus found that 7.1 per cent had been physically abused while children while 6.2 per cent said they were sexually abused.
Some 8.6 per cent reported drink or drug use by parents when they were under 18, and 6.5 per cent reported poor health at this time.
There was strong evidence of the lasting physical and psychological effects of these adverse effects. Children who were abused were over 30 per cent more likely to suffer heart disease as adults for example. They were also over three times more likely to have psychiatric problems.
Disease and obesity
“Childhood matters for health and wellbeing in later life,” said Dr Cathal McCrory of Trinity College Dublin. “The more challenges the child faces in early life, the greater the likelihood they will develop disease in later life.”
The data mined from the Growing Up in Ireland survey of over 20,000 children shows poor children are over three times as likely to be obese at age three compared to better-off children. While poorer children tend to have low weight at birth, by age three children in the bottom half of income distribution are 75 per cent more likely to be obese. Children in the bottom fifth by family income are 230 per cent more likely to be obese.
Similar patterns have been identified for mental health, with a child’s psychological wellbeing worse at lower income levels. The risk of serious emotional and behavioural problems at age nine is twice as high in the bottom half of income distribution.
Health problems persist into later life, the data shows; the risk of cardiovascular disease in later life is over a fifth higher among people who grew up in poor households.
“This research adds to a growing international evidence base that shows how children’s early life environments determine not only their physical health and risk of disease but may also contribute to childhood and adult criminality, educational failure, family breakdown and mental health,” said Prof Layte.
The findings, which show that early interventions to target the causes of health and social problems are cheaper than providing services later to deal with the consequences, have important policy implications for Government, he said.
Ireland’s child poverty rate is high compared to other European countries yet cash payments to families are higher here. The ESRI says measures which facilitate employment may be more effective at reducing child poverty than increases in cash benefits.