Socioeconomic inequalities in childhood and adolescent body-mass index, weight, and height from 1953 to 2015: an analysis of four longitudinal, observational, British birth cohort studies

David Bann, William Johnson, Leah Li, Diana Kuh, Rebecca Hardy
Lancet. Public Health 2018, 3 (4): e194-e203

BACKGROUND: Socioeconomic inequalities in childhood body-mass index (BMI) have been documented in high-income countries; however, uncertainty exists with regard to how they have changed over time, how inequalities in the composite parts (ie, weight and height) of BMI have changed, and whether inequalities differ in magnitude across the outcome distribution. Therefore, we aimed to investigate how socioeconomic inequalities in childhood and adolescent weight, height, and BMI have changed over time in Britain.

METHODS: We used data from four British longitudinal, observational, birth cohort studies: the 1946 Medical Research Council National Survey of Health and Development (1946 NSHD), 1958 National Child Development Study (1958 NCDS), 1970 British Cohort Study (1970 BCS), and 2001 Millennium Cohort Study (2001 MCS). BMI (kg/m2 ) was derived in each study from measured weight and height. Childhood socioeconomic position was indicated by the father's occupational social class, measured at the ages of 10-11 years. We examined associations between childhood socioeconomic position and anthropometric outcomes at age 7 years, 11 years, and 15 years to assess socioeconomic inequalities in each cohort using gender-adjusted linear regression models. We also used multilevel models to examine whether these inequalities widened or narrowed from childhood to adolescence, and quantile regression was used to examine whether the magnitude of inequalities differed across the outcome distribution.

FINDINGS: In England, Scotland, and Wales, 5362 singleton births were enrolled in 1946, 17 202 in 1958, 17 290 in 1970, and 16 404 in 2001. Low socioeconomic position was associated with lower weight at childhood and adolescent in the earlier-born cohorts (1946-70), but with higher weight in the 2001 MCS cohort. Weight disparities became larger from childhood to adolescence in the 2001 MCS but not the earlier-born cohorts (pinteraction =0·001). Low socioeconomic position was also associated with shorter height in all cohorts, yet the absolute magnitude of this difference narrowed across generations. These disparities widened with age in the 2001 MCS (pinteraction =0·002) but not in the earlier-born cohorts. There was little inequality in childhood BMI in the 1946-70 cohorts, whereas inequalities were present in the 2001 cohort and widened from childhood to adolescence in the 1958-2001 cohorts (pinteraction <0·05 in the later three cohorts but not the 1946 NSHD). BMI and weight disparities were larger in the 2001 cohort than in the earlier-born cohorts, and systematically larger at higher quantiles-eg, in the 2001 MCS at age 11 years, a difference of 0·98 kg/m2 (95% CI 0·63-1·33) in the 50th BMI percentile and 2·54 kg/m2 (1·85-3·22) difference at the 90th BMI percentile were observed.

INTERPRETATION: Over the studied period (1953-2015), socioeconomic-associated inequalities in weight reversed and those in height narrowed, whereas differences in BMI and obesity emerged and widened. These substantial changes highlight the impact of societal changes on child and adolescent growth and the insufficiency of previous policies in preventing obesity and its socioeconomic inequality. As such, new and effective policies are required to reduce BMI inequalities in childhood and adolescence.

FUNDING: UK Economic and Social Research Council, Medical Research Council, and Academy of Medical Sciences/the Wellcome Trust.

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