Are parents’ childhood economic conditions linked to their children’s asthma?

Published online: January 14, 2017

Low socioeconomic status (SES) – that is, families’ income, educational attainment, and occupational status – have long been linked to a number of disease and mortality outcomes in both children and adults. However, much of this research has focused on how current circumstances are related to one’s health.  

In this study, Chen et al. raised the question of intergenerational effects – that is, whether the environments experienced in one generation might be linked to the health of subsequent generations. Specifically, they asked whether parents’ economic conditions during their childhood would be related to their children’s asthma.

150 children ages 9-17 who were physician diagnosed with asthma participated with a parent. To measure parents’ childhood SES, parents were asked whether their family owned or rented their home during their first three years of life. Asthma control (e.g., symptoms, medication use) was measured by both parent and child report. In addition, children provided blood samples and asthma inflammation was measured. Children were also interviewed about current family relationship stress.

When parents grew up in lower SES homes, their children had poorer asthma control, and their children’s immune cells exhibited stronger inflammatory responses (released more inflammatory proteins when stimulated). Associations were not due to current SES, meaning that the link between parents’ childhood economic circumstances and children’s asthma was not just because families’ current economic conditions were linked to children’s asthma. In addition, analyses revealed that one psychological explanation for these findings is that parents who grow up in low SES environments are more likely to have stressful current family relationships, and difficult family relationships in turn are related to poorer asthma outcomes in children. These finding suggest that efforts to reduce health disparities in children may need to also consider parents’ childhood environments and their potential contributions to children’s health.

The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (JACI) is an official scientific journal of the AAAAI, and is the most-cited journal in the field of allergy and clinical immunology.

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