Background: Explanations for social inequalities in health are often explored but remain largely unresolved. To elucidate the origins of health inequalties, we investigated the extent to which adult-disease risk factors vary systematically according to social position over three decades of early life.
Methods: We used the 1958 birth cohort (all children born in England, Scotland, and Wales on March 3-9, 1958) with data up to age 33 years from parents, teachers, doctors, and cohort members (n = 11,407 for age 33 interview).
Findings: Social class of origin was associated with physical risk factors (birthweight, height, and adult body-mass index); economic circumstances, including household overcrowding, basic amenities, and low income; health behaviour of parents (breastfeeding and smoking) and of participants (smoking and diet); social and family functioning and structure, such as divorce or separation of participants or their parents, emotional adjustment in adolescence, social support in early adulthood; and educational achievement and working career, in particular no qualifications, unemployment, job strain, and insecurity. With few exceptions, there were strong significant trends of increasing risk from classes I and II to classes IV and V. Self-perceived health status and symptoms were worse in participants with lower class origins.
Interpretation: An individual's chance of encountering multiple adverse health risks throughout life is influenced powerfully by social position. Social trends in adult-disease risk factors do not emerge exclusively in mid-life, but accumulate over decades. Investment in educational and emotional development is needed in all social groups to strengthen prevention strategies relating to health behaviour, work-place environment, and income inequality.