How Your Childhood Advantage May Become a Mortality-related Disadvantage

Photographed by Yonyoung
Associate Professor Jeong-han Kang
Department of Sociology, Yonsei University

■ Social Sciences & Business /

How Your Childhood Advantage May Become a Mortality-related Disadvantage

­­­Yonsei sociologist investigates mortality, marriage longevity, and childhood family structure

Does growing up in a home with both parents actually help you live longer? If so, does it remain true regardless of one’s own marital history in adulthood?

Kang et al.’s (2016) “Marital status and mortality: Does family structure in childhood matter?” broadens existing research on the relationship between marital status and mortality risk by digging up the past: how our childhood family structure can affect the relationship.

Using the General Social Survey (from an 8-year period)—which gathers data on contemporary American society in order to monitor and explain trends and constants in attitudes, behaviors, and attributes—merged with the National Death Index (GSS-NDI), the authors explore the effects of the connections between marital status and childhood family structure on mortality, as well as gendered patterns of these processes.

Previous studies have already shown that married people demonstrate higher levels of psychological and physical well-being as well as lower levels of mortality risks than people with other marital statuses; in addition, parental marital disruption in childhood has also been shown to influence an individual’s own mortality in later life. It has not previously been investigated, however, how childhood family structure and adulthood marital status interplay in terms of mortality.

Using Cox proportional hazard models to examine the effects of marital status and living with both parents in childhood, marital status was measured in this study by a set of dummy variables. Those married for the first time were used as the reference group and four dummies were created for other statuses: remarried, widowed, divorced or separated, and never married. Family structure at age 16 was measured by one dummy for having lived with both biological parents, to which about 70% of all respondents belonged.

Although Kang et al.’s study has potential to be taken further—perhaps to include detailed family types such as living with single fathers—its contribution to existing literature is undeniable, and key interactive effects found through the study, among both men and women, are highlighted below.

Family: A prescription for personal health?
While this study agrees with previous findings that married people have significantly lower levels of mortality risk than widowed people, family structure in childhood is also significantly associated with mortality risk in adulthood. This study found that people who lived with both biological parents in childhood had a 19.5% lower mortality risk than their counterparts, as a disadvantaged family structure indicates exposure to a range of stressors (e.g., economic, psychological, social), which can negatively affect health over an individual’s life span.

So good it’s bad
Ironically, having a stable family structure throughout childhood can actually work against both men and women if they experience marital disruption later in life, such as the death of a spouse. Spending one’s childhood with both parents generally equates to more resources, care, and support, but also creates a vulnerability in a lack of coping mechanisms to deal with unwanted or unanticipated events later in life. As such, the context of spousal loss matters, because family structures in childhood provide a different background to widowed people’s psychological adjustments following spousal loss. Widowed subjects who lived with both parents in childhood suffered from a 43.2% higher hazard of death than married people who had also lived with both parents.

Gender neutral, with a few exceptions
Although findings were marginally significant for women, the study found that the general interaction effect between marital status and family structure in childhood was largely similar for both men and women. Of course, the introduction of variables such as education, income, and marital status (e.g., being widowed) can tilt the scales and result in gender-based significance.

One of the more striking findings in this vein was that the coefficient of the interaction effect for men who were widowed and lived with both parents in childhood was about twice as large as that for women in the same situation. In fact, widowed men who lived with both parents in childhood had the highest mortality risk among all respondents, or 66.3% greater than their married counterparts, who had the lowest mortality risk.

This study’s inclusion of childhood family structure into existing models of linking marital status and mortality shows surprising disparities in its subsample analyses by gender. In addition, the finding that living with both parents in childhood does not have protective effects for widowed people (particularly widowed men) raises the question of why widowed adults do not benefit from an advantaged family structure during their formative years.

Overall, this is an engaging look into how research on these contextual effects are related to gender as well as other life-course factors, and how our past can be used to predict our vulnerabilities in the future.

Updated in Feb 2017

J.-H. Kang, J. Kim, M.-A. Lee, “Marital status and mortality: Does family structure in childhood matter?” Social Science & Medicine, doi: