Early-life socioeconomic status and mortality in later life: an integration of four life-course mechanisms

J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2014 May;69(3):451-60. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbt122. Epub 2014 Feb 4.


Objectives: Using data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, we examine (a) how socioeconomic status (SES) at age 18 affects all-cause mortality at ages 54-72, and (b) whether the effect of early-life SES is consistent with the critical period, accumulation of risks, social mobility, and pathway models. We also explore gender differences in the effect of early-life SES and life-course mechanisms.

Method: Participants (N = 6,547) were surveyed in 1957, 1975, and 1993, with vital status established until 2011. We combine discrete-time survival analysis with structural equation modeling. SES and health behaviors are modeled as latent factors.

Results: Early-life SES affects mortality indirectly via status attainment and health behaviors in adulthood and midlife. This finding is contrary to the critical period and consistent with the pathway model. Persistent disadvantage at three life stages is a strong risk factor for mortality, thus, supporting the accumulation of risks. Moreover, the mortality risk of individuals who experienced downward socioeconomic mobility is comparable to their peers with persistent disadvantage.

Discussion: This study highlights the complexity of interrelated life-course processes underlying the effect of early-life SES on mortality in later life.

Keywords: Gender; Health behaviors; Life course; Mortality; Socioeconomic status..

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Female
  • Health Behavior*
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Models, Statistical*
  • Mortality*
  • Sex Factors
  • Social Class*
  • Survival Analysis
  • Wisconsin / epidemiology