Childhood psychological problems have long-term economic and social impact

29 March 2011

Research based on the National Child Development Study has found that psychological problems during childhood are associated by age 50 with significantly lower income, being less conscientious, having a lower likelihood of being married and having less-stable personal relationships.

Psychological problems experienced during childhood can have a long-lasting impact on an individual's life course, reducing people's earnings and decreasing the chances of establishing long-lasting relationships, according to a new study based on NCDS data.

Researchers from the non-profit RAND Corporation and the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that family income was about 25% lower on average by age 50 among those who experienced serious psychological problems during childhood than among those who did not experience such problems.

In addition, childhood psychological problems were associated later in life with being less conscientious, having a lower likelihood of being married and having less-stable personal relationships.

"These findings demonstrate that childhood psychological problems can have significant negative impacts over the course of an individual's life, much more so than childhood physical health problems," said James P. Smith, one of the study's authors and a senior economist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. "The findings suggest that increasing efforts to address these problems early in children may have large economic payoffs later in life."

The other two authors of the study are Alissa Goodman and Robert Joyce of the Institute for Fiscal Studies in London.

By looking at the children's situation at ages 7, 11 and 16, the researchers found that the impacts of psychological disorders during childhood are far more important individually and collectively over a lifetime than childhood physical health problems. To illustrate, while family income at age 50 is reduced by 25 percent or more due to childhood mental problems, the reduction in family income on average is 9 percent due to major childhood physical health problems and only 3 percent due to minor childhood physical health problems. A central reason for the larger impact of childhood mental health problems is their effects take place much earlier in childhood and persist, the researchers say.

They found that the negative economic impact of childhood psychological problems were apparent early in adulthood, with household income 19 percent lower among 23-year-olds who had psychological problems as a child as compared to those who did not.

Some of the smaller family income is caused by a lower likelihood that those who had childhood psychological problems will live with a partner as an adult. By age 50, people who had childhood psychological problems had a 6 percent lower probability of being married or cohabitating and an 11 percent lower chance of working.

The National Child Development Study includes assessments of participants' cognitive functioning and personality traits at age 50, allowing researchers to estimate the impact of childhood psychological problems in those areas.

Children with mental health issues showed reduced cognitive abilities as adults, possibly because their psychological problems make it difficult for them to concentrate and remember, researchers say. Childhood mental health problems also had a negative impact at age 50 on agreeableness and conscientiousness, two key measures of personality.

They found childhood mental health problems also had significant effects on inhibiting social mobility across and within generations and reduced the number of distinct continuous jobs a person held as an adult. This is important because one way people increase their income is by changing jobs to move to better opportunities.


GOODMAN, A., JOYCE, R. and SMITH, J.P. (2011) The long shadow cast by childhood physical and mental problems on adult life. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, advance online access, 28 March 2011