Childhood risk factors predict future economic burden – Expert Reaction

US researchers using data from Dunedin’s longitudinal study say it is possible to predict in early childhood the segment of the population that will go on to account for the largest economic burden.

Sad boyThe research, published today in Nature Human Behaviour, used information from the cohort of 1,037 New Zealanders who have been studied since birth, in the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Study. Using information from government administrative databases, the Duke University researchers found 20 per cent of the study members made up nearly 80 per cent of the adult economic burden, accounting for factors such as criminal convictions, welfare benefits and prescription fills.

Dunedin Study director Professor Richie Poulton said these members could be identified with high accuracy when they were still young children, from data including neurological evaluations and assessments of language development, motor skills and social behaviour.

“We also found that members of this group tended to have grown up in more socioeconomically deprived environments, experienced child maltreatment, scored poorly on childhood IQ tests and exhibited low childhood self-control,” Professor Poulton said.

The study authors cautioned that there was “no merit in blaming a person for economic burden following from childhood disadvantage”. Instead, tackling the effects of childhood disadvantage through early support for families and children could benefit all members of society by reducing costs.

Several media outlets covered the study’s results, including:

Radio NZ: Researchers can predict 3 year olds’ future problems
Newshub: ‘Economic burdens’ determined by age three – study 
NZ Herald: Future criminals revealed at three, says study
The Press: Editorial: How the number-crunchers could hold the key to our biggest social ills
The Spinoff: ‘Future criminals revealed at age three’? Not so fast, says Dunedin Study head
The Guardian: 
‘High social cost’ adults can be predicted from as young as three, says study

More information about the study is available on scimex.orgThe SMC gathered expert commentary on the study.

Professor Cameron Grant, deputy director, Centre for Longitudinal Research, the University of Auckland, comments:

“We have known for some time that early risk factors cluster and are associated with poor outcomes for wellbeing across the multiple domains throughout the life-course. The information reported from this study aligns to Michael Marmot’s UK social gradient work and his calls for proportionate universalism to reduce economic and social burdens over time.1 Central to this is the recognition of the need to give every child the best start in life if health inequalities across the life course are to be reduced.

“The publication by Caspi et al. further validates what we already know about the importance of the early years. As the authors note, it is necessary to recognise the limitations of this particular study in terms of its relevance to contemporary society given that the sample was recruited from a single maternity hospital in one New Zealand city of modest size and that the recruited cohort did not reflect the diversity of the national birth cohort. It is also important to recognise that the first assessment on children in this cohort study occurred when they were 3 years old, well past the critical first 1000 days of life which covers the period from conception to the second birthday.

“What this work can’t tell us is ‘why?’, and ‘what works?’ to mitigate the effects of early disadvantage.

“The associations between early life experience and subsequent outcomes are not static nor absolute. Data from the contemporary longitudinal study Growing Up in New Zealand have already shown that not all children who are classified as most vulnerable will incur great costs. In fact, most will not and some who are not classified as vulnerable will. Further, the burden of vulnerability in early life is dynamic, and data from Growing Up in New Zealand shows that moving in or out of vulnerability during early childhood has a dramatic effect on health and behavioural outcomes.

“We cannot necessarily use the findings in this paper, which draws on observations of a very different sample of children some 40 years ago, to predict the likely impact on the current generation of New Zealanders. We need to understand how ethnicity and parents’ migration status impact on life course trajectories as well as how they cluster with other risks.

“We absolutely need to do better to support our most vulnerable families and each of their children from conception onwards and not stigmatise individuals. However, we need to know how to intervene and what works for families in 21st century New Zealand.

“The Growing Up in New Zealand cohort represents the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of the current generation and provides the sample size required to address the issues raised by Caspi et al. It provides the framework to go beyond mere reiteration of the self-fulfilling prediction that a poor start to life means higher chances of poor outcomes across the life course.”