Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Childhood adversity as a risk for cancer: findings from the 1958 British birth cohort study

Michelle Kelly-Irving12*, Benoit Lepage23, Dominique Dedieu12, Rebecca Lacey4, Noriko Cable4, Melanie Bartley4, David Blane5, Pascale Grosclaude126, Thierry Lang123 and Cyrille Delpierre12

Author Affiliations

1 INSERM, U1027, Toulouse F-31300, France

2 Université Toulouse III Paul-Sabatier, UMR1027, Toulouse F-31300, France

3 CHU Toulouse, Hôpital Purpan, Département, Toulouse F-31300, France

4 Department of epidemiology and public health, University College London, London, UK

5 Department of Primary Care and Public Health, Imperial College London, London, UK

6 Institut Claudus Regaud, Toulouse F-31300, France

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BMC Public Health 2013, 13:767  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-13-767

Published: 19 August 2013



To analyse whether Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) are associated with an increased risk of cancer.


The National child development study (NCDS) is a prospective birth cohort study with data collected over 50 years. The NCDS included all live births during one week in 1958 (n = 18558) in Great Britain. Self-reported cancer incidence was based on 444 participants reporting having had cancer at some point and 5694 reporting never having cancer. ACE was measured using reports of: 1) child in care, 2) physical neglect, 3) child’s or family’s contact with the prison service, 4) parental separation due to divorce, death or other, 5) family experience of mental illness & 6) family experience of substance abuse. The resulting variable had three categories, no ACEs/ one ACE/ 2 + ACEs and was used to test for a relationship with cancer. Information on socioeconomic characteristics, pregnancy and birth were extracted as potential confounders. Information on adult health behaviours, socioeconomic environment, psychological state and age at first pregnancy were added to the models. Multivariate models were run using multiply-imputed data to account for missing data in the cohort.


The odds of having a cancer before 50 y among women increased twofold for those who had 2+ ACEs versus those with no ACEs, after adjusting for adult factors and early life confounders (OR: 2.1, 95% CI: 1.42-3.21, p < 0.001).


These findings suggest that cancer risk may be influenced by exposure to stressful conditions and events early on in life. This is potentially important in furthering our understanding of cancer aetiology, and consequently in redirecting scientific research and developing appropriate prevention policies.

(MeSH): Social medicine; Cancer; Psychosocial factors; Cohort studies; Psychological stress; Life course