Health: Lower classes born to life of poorer health

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Social class has a powerful influence on whether people grow up healthy or are beset by illness, a study over 33 years has confirmed.

A follow up of 11,407 people born in England, Scotland and Wales in 1958 revealed strong links between social origin and a broad spectrum of health risk factors. These included birthweight and height, household overcrowding, smoking and diet, breastfeeding, divorce, educational achievement and unemployment.

With only a few exceptions there were "strong significant trends" of increasing adverse risk associated with lower social classes.

The researchers, Dr Chris Power and Sharon Matthews of the Institute of Child Health, London, gathered information from participants in the study from birth up to the age of 33. They also obtained data from parents, teachers and doctors. Writing in The Lancet they concluded: "An individual's chance of encountering multiple adverse health risks throughout life is influenced powerfully by social position.

"Social trends in adult-disease risk factors do not emerge exclusively in mid-life but accumulate over decades."

The trend towards greater risk with lower social class was especially strong for general sickness, respiratory symptoms and psychological distress in both men and women.

Key factors included maternal and passive smoking, own smoking habits, and low consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables. For each of these risk increased from the highest to the lowest class of origin.

The authors suggested that pre-school care and education could play an important role in tackling the problem.