A prospective study of limiting longstanding illness in early adulthood

C Power, L Li, O Manor
International Journal of Epidemiology 2000, 29 (1): 131-9

BACKGROUND: Chronic illness and disability are of increasing public health importance but little is known about the lifetime influences involved in their onset and progression. We aim to (i) establish whether an individual's rating of limiting illness is stable over a 10-year period from age 23 to 33; (ii) assess the relationship between childhood and adult disability; and (iii) identify lifecourse influences on limiting illness in early adulthood.

METHODS: Data were from the 1958 British birth cohort, including the original birth survey and follow-ups at ages 7, 11, 16, 23 and 33 years. Limiting longstanding illness was the outcome at both ages 23 and 33. Potential predictors included childhood health and physical development, socioeconomic conditions in early life and adulthood, and behavioural factors. We estimated the effect of potential explanatory factors using logistic regression, in both univariate and multivariate analyses, separately for limiting illness at 23 and 33 years.

RESULTS: Prevalence of limiting illness increased from 5.1% (men) and 4.1% (women) at age 23 to 6% for both sexes at age 33. Risk of limiting illness at age 33 was greater for those reporting an illness at age 23 (29.4%, compared with 4.7% of those without illness), though the majority (66%) of 33-year limiting illnesses had no previous record at age 23 or for childhood. Multivariate analysis of limiting illness at age 23 confirmed the high risk for those with childhood disability and also established two further major predictors, namely, injury (adjusted odds ratio [OR] = 1.42, 95% CI: 1.09-1.86) and intermediate socio-emotional status (adjusted OR = 1.73, 95% CI: 1.29-2.31). Additional risks were identified for limiting illness at age 33, including: (i) injury in the preceding 10 years (adjusted OR = 1.55, 95% CI : 1.18-2.04); (ii) body mass index (BMI), for which the relationship was non-linear, with elevated risks for the underweight (adjusted OR = 1.53, 95% CI: 1.03-2.26) and overweight (OR = 1.28, 95% CI: 0.87-1.89); (iii) childhood disadvantage at either or both ages 7 and 11 (adjusted OR = 1.53, 95% CI : 1.07-2.17); and (iv) height at age 7, with a significant non-linear relationship (the adjusted OR for height less than 15th percentile was 1.43 and for height more than the 85th percentile, 1.30).

CONCLUSIONS: Both childhood and adult factors predict limiting illness in early adulthood. Childhood is important because some adult illnesses originate in early life, and also because childhood environment influences the risk of adult limiting illness several years later. Our findings suggest that studies seeking to understand the causes of limiting illness, that currently tend to focus exclusively on contemporary factors, need also to consider the contribution of environment in early life.

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