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Open Access Research article

The development of socio-economic health differences in childhood: results of the Dutch longitudinal PIAMA birth cohort

Annemarie Ruijsbroek1*, Alet H Wijga1, Marjan Kerkhof2, Gerard H Koppelman3, Henriette A Smit4 and Mariël Droomers1

Author Affiliations

1 Centre for Prevention and Health Services Research, National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, Bilthoven, the Netherlands

2 Department of Epidemiology and Bioinformatics, University of Groningen, Groningen, the Netherlands

3 Department of Pediatric Pulmonology and Pediatric Allergology, University Medical Center Groningen, Groningen, the Netherlands

4 Julius Center for Health Sciences and Primary Care, University Medical Center Utrecht, Utrecht, the Netherlands

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BMC Public Health 2011, 11:225  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-11-225

Published: 12 April 2011

Abstract

Background

People with higher socio-economic status (SES) are generally in better health. Less is known about when these socio-economic health differences set in during childhood and how they develop over time. The goal of this study was to prospectively study the development of socio-economic health differences in the Netherlands, and to investigate possible explanations for socio-economic variation in childhood health.

Methods

Data from the Dutch Prevention and Incidence of Asthma and Mite Allergy (PIAMA) birth cohort study were used for the analyses. The PIAMA study followed 3,963 Dutch children during their first eight years of life. Common childhood health problems (i.e. eczema, asthma symptoms, general health, frequent respiratory infections, overweight, and obesity) were assessed annually using questionnaires. Maternal educational level was used to indicate SES. Possible explanatory lifestyle determinants (breastfeeding, smoking during pregnancy, smoking during the first three months, and day-care centre attendance) and biological determinants (maternal age at birth, birthweight, and older siblings) were analysed using generalized estimating equations.

Results

This study shows that socio-economic differences in a broad range of health problems are already present early in life, and persist during childhood. Children from families with low socio-economic backgrounds experience more asthma symptoms (odds ratio (OR) 1.27; 95% Confidence Interval (CI) 1.08-1.49), poorer general health (OR 1.36; 95% CI 1.16-1.60), more frequent respiratory infections (OR 1.57; 95% CI 1.35-1.83), more overweight (OR 1.42; 95% CI 1.16-1.73), and more obesity (OR 2.82; 95% CI 1.80-4.41). The most important contributors to the observed childhood socio-economic health disparities are socio-economic differences in maternal age at birth, breastfeeding, and day-care centre attendance.

Conclusions

Socio-economic health disparities already occur very early in life. Socio-economic disadvantage takes its toll on child health before birth, and continues to do so during childhood. Therefore, action to reduce health disparities needs to start very early in life, and should also address socio-economic differences in maternal age at birth, breastfeeding habits, and day-care centre attendance.