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Early Life Experience & Successful Aging


Age and Aging

Type: Report
Region: Republic of Ireland
Northern Ireland

Proponents of the “successful aging” model argue that later-life aging should be viewed as more than a process of loss. The successful aging model focuses on the goals and experiences that can emerge in older adulthood, such as the maintenance of cognitive functioning and engagement in new social roles. Recently, scholars of successful aging have incorporated a life course perspective, which looks at how the conditions and experiences of earlier life have long-term effects. A recent study examined the relationship between childhood misfortune and the avoidance of disease in later life, which is a major goal of successful aging. Existing research from the life course perspective has identified several childhood risk factors that can lead to later health problems. Although it is rare for any individual to remain disease-free throughout adulthood, those who suffer misfortune early in life tend to have a greater number of ailments as older adults. However, there is a subset of individuals who are able to avoid disease, which is greatly relevant to the field of successful aging. The study discussed here differs from previous research in that it brings together the successful aging and life course perspectives to ask if childhood misfortune reduces the likelihood of being disease-free in later life. The researchers used data from a representative sample of over 3,000 adults in the United States. Participants were surveyed at two points, ten years apart, and assessed for the presence of 28 different physical conditions. Participants were also asked about relevant present-day variables (such as social support and education), and whether they experienced several forms of childhood misfortune, such as abuse, the death of a parent, or poor physical health. The researchers assessed whether, when factoring in the present-day variables, early childhood misfortune affected the likelihood of remaining disease-free. The authors acknowledge that the recollection of childhood events is subject to bias and forgetting, but claim that past research suggests individuals are more likely to underestimate early adversity than they are to overestimate it. Early childhood misfortune appears to make disease-free adulthood more unlikely. Within this sample, early misfortune had a similar effect on disease avoidance as the combination of moderate cigarette smoking and obesity. For 27 of the 28 conditions assessed in the survey, those with the disease had a higher number of childhood misfortunes than those without the disease. The authors also examined the relationship between the number of childhood misfortunes and the likelihood of being free of all 28 conditions at either the first or second time point. They found that, at all ages and points of time, a greater exposure to childhood misfortune made individuals less likely to be disease free. Successful aging research has only recently begun to incorporate a life course perspective to examine the role of early-life misfortune. These findings suggest that efforts to improve the lives of children may be an important component of successful aging. Source: Schafer MH and Ferraro KF, (2012). Childhood misfortune as a threat to successful aging: avoiding disease. The Gerontologist 52(1):111-120.



Rights: Public
Suggested citation:

Age and Aging. (2012) Early Life Experience & Successful Aging [Online]. Available from: [Accessed: 19th September 2019].


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