The Shackles of Misfortune: Social Adversity Assessment and Representation in a Chronic-Disease Epidemiological Setting

Soc Sci Med. 2007 Jan;64(1):95-111. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2006.08.013. Epub 2006 Sep 25.


Research evidence is accumulating to support an association between social adversity and the development of predisease processes and physical disease outcomes. While methodological advances have been achieved in the assessment of social adversity, significant barriers remain to their adoption in chronic disease epidemiological settings consequent upon the need to limit participant burden and restrictions imposed by cohort size and cost. A large-scale population-based cohort study, as part of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer, Norfolk, UK, provided an opportunity to include a comprehensive postal assessment of social adversity. A total of 20,921 participants reported details of 16,031 adverse circumstances during childhood, 119,056 life events and 106,170 person-years of difficulties experienced during adulthood. Impact and adaptation indices were constructed from responses to questions regarding specific life events experienced. There was no evidence that younger participants reported more difficulties in childhood than those who were older, and no evidence of clustering of loss events involving the death of first degree relatives according to their recency. However, there was evidence of recall bias for events not involving loss with increased event rates observed in the few years immediately prior to questionnaire completion. Women reported similar events as more upsetting, and that they took longer to get over their effects, than men. Difficulties experienced in childhood, life events and difficulties in adulthood, event impact and adaptation were all associated with worse physical functional health. Reported slow adaptation to the effects of life events was associated with the largest decrement in physical functional health. These findings strengthen the rationale for including a collection of comprehensive social adversity data within chronic disease epidemiological settings and offer promise for aiding understanding of individual differences in physical disease aetiology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Chronic Disease / epidemiology*
  • England
  • Female
  • Health Status*
  • Humans
  • Life Change Events*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Prospective Studies
  • Sex Factors
  • Social Environment
  • Surveys and Questionnaires