Childhood Health: Trends and Consequences over the Life Course


This article first documents evidence on the changing prevalence of childhood physical and mental health problems, focusing on the development of childhood health conditions in the United States. Authors Liam Delaney and James Smith present evidence on the changing prevalence of childhood chronic conditions over time using recalled data as well as contemporaneous accounts of these childhood health problems. The raw data from both sources show sharp increases in the prevalence of most childhood physical health problems (such as asthma, allergies, respiratory problems, and migraines) over time. However, inferring trends is difficult because such data are also consistent with improved detection of childhood disease, and many of the causes of childhood disease have not worsened over time. Conclusions about rapidly rising rates of childhood physical health problems over time are premature at best, especially concerning the magnitude of trends. Documenting real changes in the prevalence of specific diseases is a high-priority research topic. In contrast, the evidence is much stronger that childhood mental health problems are becoming worse.

The authors next present new evidence on the effects of early childhood physical and mental problems on health and economic status in adulthood. They find that both childhood physical and mental health problems contribute significantly to poorer adult health. However, they also find that childhood mental health problems have much larger impacts than do childhood physical health problems on four critical areas of socioeconomic status as an adult: education, weeks worked per year, individual earnings, and family income.

Finally, the authors examine evidence regarding the efficacy of early mental health treatment for children in terms of promoting good health later on. Existing studies suggest that a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and medication appears to be effective in the treatment of both anxiety and depression in children. However, much more research is needed on the efficacy of these childhood interventions into adulthood. Clinical trials have been too short to evaluate the long-term impacts of various forms of treatment, and these impacts are definitively long term.