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Malnutrition in early life and adult mental health: Evidence from a natural experiment

Author

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  • Huang, Cheng
  • Phillips, Michael R.
  • Zhang, Yali
  • Zhang, Jingxuan
  • Shi, Qichang
  • Song, Zhiqiang
  • Ding, Zhijie
  • Pang, Shutao
  • Martorell, Reynaldo

Abstract

As natural experiments, famines provide a unique opportunity to test the health consequences of nutritional deprivation during the critical period of early life. Using data on 4972 Chinese born between 1956 and 1963 who participated in a large mental health epidemiology survey conducted between 2001 and 2005, we investigated the potential impact of exposure to the 1959–1961 Chinese Famine in utero and during the early postnatal life on adult mental illness. The risk of mental illness was assessed with the 12-item General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12) and eight other risk factors, and the famine impact on adult mental illness was estimated by difference-in-difference models. Results show that compared with unexposed women born in 1963, women born during the famine years (1959–1961) had higher GHQ scores (increased by 0.95 points; CI: 0.26, 1.65) and increased risk of mental illness (OR = 2.80; CI: 1.23, 6.39); those born in 1959 were the most affected and had GHQ scores 1.52 points higher (CI: 0.42, 2.63) and an OR for mental illness of 4.99 (CI: 1.68, 14.84). Compared to men in the 1963 birth cohort, men born during the famine had lower GHQ scores (decreased by 0.89 points; CI: −1.59, −0.20) and a nonsignificant decrease in the risk of mental illness (OR = 0.60; CI: 0.26, 1.40). We speculate that the long-term consequences of early-life famine exposure include both the selection of the hardiest and the enduring deleterious effects of famine on those who survive. The greater biological vulnerability and stronger natural selection in utero of male versus female fetuses during severe famine may result in a stronger selection effect among men than women, obscuring the deleterious impact of famine exposure on the risk of mental illness in men later in life.

Suggested Citation

  • Huang, Cheng & Phillips, Michael R. & Zhang, Yali & Zhang, Jingxuan & Shi, Qichang & Song, Zhiqiang & Ding, Zhijie & Pang, Shutao & Martorell, Reynaldo, 2013. "Malnutrition in early life and adult mental health: Evidence from a natural experiment," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 97(C), pages 259-266.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:socmed:v:97:y:2013:i:c:p:259-266
    DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2012.09.051
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    Cited by:

    1. Maclean, Johanna Catherine & Popovici, Ioana & French, Michael T., 2016. "Are natural disasters in early childhood associated with mental health and substance use disorders as an adult?," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 151(C), pages 78-91.
    2. Schott, Whitney & Aurino, Elisabetta & Penny, Mary E. & Behrman, Jere R., 2019. "The double burden of malnutrition among youth: Trajectories and inequalities in four emerging economies," Economics & Human Biology, Elsevier, vol. 34(C), pages 80-91.
    3. Havari, Enkelejda & Peracchi, Franco, 2017. "Growing up in wartime: Evidence from the era of two world wars," Economics & Human Biology, Elsevier, vol. 25(C), pages 9-32.
    4. Xu, Hongwei & Li, Lydia & Zhang, Zhenmei & Liu, Jinyu, 2016. "Is natural experiment a cure? Re-examining the long-term health effects of China's 1959–1961 famine," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 148(C), pages 110-122.
    5. Stephen Z Levine & Itzhak Levav & Rinat Yoffe & Yifat Becher & Inna Pugachova, 2016. "Genocide Exposure and Subsequent Suicide Risk: A Population-Based Study," PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, vol. 11(2), pages 1-16, February.
    6. Nobles, Jenna & Hamoudi, Amar, 2019. "Detecting the Effects of Early-Life Exposures: Why Fecundity Matters," SocArXiv x4zm6, Center for Open Science.
    7. Jenna Nobles & Amar Hamoudi, 2019. "Detecting the Effects of Early-Life Exposures: Why Fecundity Matters," Population Research and Policy Review, Springer;Southern Demographic Association (SDA), vol. 38(6), pages 783-809, December.

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