26 October 2018

A Childhood in the Lowest Stratum of Society Takes Its Physical Toll Later in Life

Unequality in health

Children of unskilled workers show lower physical function in midlife than children of academics. The most physically challenging tests show the greatest difference, new research from the Center for Healthy Aging and the Department of Public Health at the University of Copenhagen reveals.

The percentage of senior citizens is increasing, and research shows that Danes age differently. With age our ability to jump and stand on one leg deteriorates, and researchers from the University of Copenhagen have previously shown how the physical capacity of middle-aged people varies between different social groups. The unskilled worker typically scores lower on physical tests than the academic.

For the first time in the Nordic Countries a study now suggests that the social differences in physical function are established as early as childhood.

Social Vulnerability During Childhood Affects Our Health Later in Life

‘Our study shows that parents of a lower social position increases the likelihood of a poorer physical function in midlife, especially in the most challenging physical tests, e.g. jumping. Our study adds another piece to the puzzle suggesting that social vulnerability during childhood affects the person – and his/her health – later in life’, says PhD Student Gitte Lindved Petersen from the Center for Healthy Aging and the Department of Public Health at the University of Copenhagen.

The researchers have studied 4,204 individuals born in 1953 or 1959-61. They were about to retire, but still active in the labour market and in general good health. The participants completed seven physical tests. The greatest variation was seen in the jumping test and the one testing how many times in 30 seconds they were able to stand up and sit down again, but also the grip strength test revealed differences between the participants’ general strength and function. 

The participants whose parents belonged to the highest socioeconomic group, were able to jump significantly higher than participants whose parents belonged to the lowest group, and the same was true of the number of times in 30 seconds they were able to stand up and sit down again. The participants with parents in the highest social group achieved an average of three more repetitions than the participants with parents in the lowest social group.

Physical function says something about a person’s current, but also future health. If the person is already limited physically in midlife, it may affect his/her health in old age and how fast he/she will age.

Early Prevention Is Important

’Compared to other international studies this new study suggests that there is a connection between one’s conditions of life in childhood and one’s health in midlife. Parents with a lower social position often have fewer resources and therefore do not prioritise eating a healthy diet and leisure activities for their children. Their children therefore do not develop healthy habits, which they can bring with them into adulthood. Our study indicates that general prevention should be introduced early in life to avoid this social inequality in health matters’, says Head of the study Associate Professor Rikke Lund from the Center for Healthy Aging and the Department of Public Health.

The study is based on CAMB, the Copenhagen Aging and Midlife Biobank, which in an international context contains unique data on middle-aged people’s muscular function, cognitive skills, health prospects and medicine consumption.

The Nordea-fonden has funded the research conducted at the Center for Healthy Aging, while the VELUX Foundation has funded the compilation of data for CAMB.

The scientific article has been published in Plos One: Childhood socioeconomic position and physical capability in late-middle age in two birth cohorts from the Copenhagen aging and midlife biobank.


PhD Student Gitte Lindved Petersen, Center for Healthy Aging and the Department of Public Health, mobile: +45 25 72 22 26, email: gilp@sund.ku.dk

Team Leader Communication Gitte Inselmann Frandsen, Center for Healthy Aging, mobile: +45 51 29 80 05, email: gitte.frandsen@sund.ku.dk