QnA #8: How does early life conditions affect us later in life?

Whooping cough (pertussis bacteria) in infancy affects people's health and socioeconomic status later in life, according to a thesis from LUSEM. Here the author, Luciana Quaranta, explains the results. Photo: Sanofi Pasteur

Whooping cough (pertussis bacteria) in infancy affects people’s health and socioeconomic status later in life, according to a thesis from LUSEM. Here the author, Luciana Quaranta, explains the results. Photo:┬áSanofi Pasteur

In her thesis Luciana Quaranta, PhD in Economic History at LUSEM, has found that people born during whooping cough outbreaks are more likely to die prematurely even if they survive into adulthood. Women had a 20% higher risk of an early death, and men a staggering 40%. Women also suffered more complications during and after pregnancy, with an increased risk of miscarriage as well as infant death within the first month of life.

In the QnA below she gives further insight into the ground-breaking results from her thesis Scarred for life. How conditions in early life affect socioeconomic status, reproduction and mortality in Southern Sweden, 1813-1968. You can read the press release here.

What have you found in your thesis?
This thesis has looked into the long term effects of exposure to high grain prices while in-utero or to infectious diseases in the first year of life for Southern Sweden in the 19th and 20th centuries. Men exposed to high grain prices while in-utero showed higher probabilities of dying in old age, while such effects were not found for females. Both men and women exposed to a high disease load in their first year of life, particularly to whooping cough, presented higher probabilities of dying from early adulthood. Females exposed to whooping cough epidemics in their infancy also showed worse reproductive health; they had a lower proportion of male births, probably as a result of a greater incidence of miscarriages, and their offspring were more likely to die in their first month of life.

How can your results be used?
This thesis contributes to our understanding of the factors that have played an important role in the declines in mortality and improvements in health and wellbeing that have been experienced by populations over the past centuries. The findings of this research are not only applicable to historical populations, but they also relate to contemporary times, both for developing nations as well as for more developed countries. Many types of infectious diseases, among which whooping cough, have in fact not been completely eradicated and therefore also today there can be long-term consequences on health from these exposures.

Why is it important?
This thesis has shown that the impact of early life conditions is a strong and important determinant of later life health and wellbeing of individuals. It has also shown that exposure to infectious diseases in the early life of a woman is an important determinant of her likelihood of experiencing pregnancy complications and of the health of her offspring.

What effect, impact or implications could your research results have in the future?
This thesis has shown the importance of making policy implications that try to reduce exposure to infectious diseases in infancy and early childhood, since such diseases do not only affect individuals at the time of infection but they also have strong impacts on their later life health and wellbeing. In addition, it shows the importance of following up individuals that have been exposed in early life to infectious diseases such as whooping cough in order to limit the negative consequences of such consequences in later ages. In particular, it is important to provide additional screening to pregnant women who had faced such exposures in order to reduce their likelihood of experiencing pregnancy complications and to improve the health of their offspring.

How do these results contradict our current understanding?
The impact of exposure to disease in early life was found to be stronger than that of exposure to inadequate diets. This thesis has therefore shown that disease was a more important factor than diet in the historical decline in mortality and in the improvements in health and longevity that have been experienced over time across populations. It has also been shown that, for the periods and populations considered, the long-term effects of exposure to disease in infancy were similar for individuals of different socioeconomic groups.

Luciana Quaranta’s landmark study uses a world unique database, the Scanian Economic Demographic Database (SEDD), which has digitized historic data from Sweden’s extensive population registers and church books. Here is a link to her theses Scarred for life.

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