18 August 2020

Study of One Million Danish Children: Childhood Adversity Increases the Risk of Early Death

Premature death

Social adversity in early childhood appears to be a significant risk factor for death in early adulthood. Children who have experienced repeated serious adversity such as losing a parent, mental illness in the family, poverty or being placed in foster care have a 4.5 times higher risk of dying in early adulthood than children who have not experienced adversity during childhood. This is the conclusion of a new large-scale study conducted at the University of Copenhagen.

sad child

In many ways, our childhood lays the foundation of our health in adult life. It is central to our physical and cognitive development. If this development is disturbed, it may have long-term consequences for our physical and mental health later in life.

In a new study, researchers from the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen show that adversity in childhood increases the risk of premature death in early adulthood (16-36 years of age).

The researchers have recorded social and stressful adversity in childhood among one million Danish children.

’We divided the children into five groups depending on the degree of adversity experienced in childhood. The more stressful experiences they have experienced during childhood, the higher the mortality rate in early adulthood. For the most vulnerable children, the mortality rate is surprisingly 4.5 times higher’, says Professor Naja Hulvej Rod from the Department of Public Health.

The higher mortality rate mainly manifests itself in suicide and accidents, but the study also shows a higher risk of dying from cancer in this group.

Poverty in Childhood Does Not Rhyme with Welfare State

According to the researchers, the results of the study stress the critical importance of broad structural public-health initiatives to reduce stressful adversity in childhood. For example, prevention of childhood poverty and other adversity in childhood. With time, it may help reduce social inequality in health.

’It is striking to see such a strong connection between adversity in childhood and mortality in the Danish welfare state, which among other things aims to promote financial stability among families with young children and to minimise social adversity. From an international perspective, you may worry that these associations are even stronger in a less extensive welfare system’, says Naja Hulvej Rod.

The study is the first of its kind on a global basis. The size of the study has made it possible for the researchers to study the associations between incidents of social and stressful adversity throughout childhood and how it affects mortality rates among young adults.

The study, ‘Trajectories of childhood adversity and mortality in early adulthood: A population-based cohort study’, has been published in the scientific journal The Lancet.

*In the study, social adversity is defined as financial poverty or long-term unemployment in the family, while stressful adversity includes e.g. death of a parent, divorce or alcohol/drug abuse among the parents.


Professor Naja Hulvej Rod
+45 60 66 33 24

Communications Consultant Amanda Nybroe Rohde
+45 23 64 94 25