The risk of dying for children and young adults is substantially higher for those whose parents have lower levels of education, lower levels of income or for those who live in a single-parent family, according to a new study from a nationwide team of university researchers.
The study, published July 4 in the Maternal and Child Health Journal with collaboration from UNLV, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Colorado Boulder, used survey data gathered over the course of 16 years on more than 350,000 children across the nation.
“Even though early-life mortality is rare, it is still a more common occurrence here in the U.S. compared to our peer countries, which contributes significantly to the U.S. health disadvantage,” said Elizabeth Lawrence, a UNLV sociology professor and co-author of the study. “This research can help us to reduce deaths among children, and can lead to developing policies that help save children’s lives.”
Among the study’s key findings:
- Compared to children and youth whose mothers earned a college degree, those whose mothers never graduated high school experienced a 40 percent higher risk of death between the ages of 1 and 24; children whose mothers attended but didn’t graduate college are at 28 percent higher risk of dying young.
- Children in the survey whose fathers did not complete high school had a 41 percent higher risk of dying young; they’re at 23 percent higher risk if their father attended but didn’t graduate from college.
- Children who grew up in families that live close to or below the poverty line experienced a 38 percent higher risk of dying during the course of the study than children who lived in high-income families.
- Children raised without a father or mother present in the home experience 40 and 48 percent higher risk, respectively, of dying young.
“It’s important to note that children represent the highest proportion of people living in poverty in the U.S. compared to any other age group,” Lawrence said. “This study provides further evidence that we need to devote more attention and resources to improving the overall health and well-being of all children across the country, not just a small, vulnerable population of children.”
While the researchers argue that providing monetary resources and programs through policy development have significant potential to reduce early-life mortality risk, those efforts alone won’t eliminate the disparities outlined in the study.
Mothers, in particular, who attain higher levels of education, are afforded with “institutional knowledge and/or social networks that can be leveraged for better health care services and/or safer child environments,” the researchers wrote.
Though previous research has uncovered differences in early-life mortality by looking at socioeconomic status measures in aggregate areas such as zip codes, little work has been done to examine these socioeconomic disparities at the individual level. This is the first study in over two decades that has examined the association between parental socioeconomic measures and early-life mortality.
“Understanding the associations between the resources of parents and families and the risk of their child dying before age 25 provides crucial information that can help policymakers and practitioners develop targeted interventions that may improve the overall mortality rate in the U.S. and, more importantly, save the lives of children,” said David B. Braudt, a recent Ph.D. graduate from the UNC-Chapel Hill sociology department and lead author on the study.
Robert A. Hummer, the Howard W. Odum Distinguished Professor of sociology at UNC-Chapel Hill, is a co-author of the study. Other collaborators on this study include Andrea Tilstra and Richard Rogers of the University of Colorado Boulder.