Sociology, Department of


Date of this Version



J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2019 Jan; 74(1): 170–180.

Published online 2018 Apr 3. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gby039

PMCID: PMC6294238

PMID: 29617874


Objectives: Although previous research reveals the detrimental effects of early misfortune on the development of chronic diseases in later life, few studies have investigated its effects on remaining disease free. This study draws on cumulative inequality theory to investigate whether experiencing childhood misfortune reduces the likelihood of remaining disease free over time.

Method: This study utilizes five waves of data from the Health and Retirement Study to test whether five domains of childhood misfortune predict being disease free at baseline (2004) and developing disease over time (2004–2012).

Results: Respondents reporting risky parental behaviors during childhood were less likely to be disease free at baseline and had an increased risk of disease onset over time, the latter driven by having a guardian who smoked in combination with more pack-years smoked in adulthood. Furthermore, we find that adult resources, that is wealth, help to mitigate the noxious effects of other misfortunes, notably poor socioeconomic conditions.

Discussion: Consistent with cumulative inequality theory, these findings reveal that experiencing multiple types of misfortune during childhood decreases the likelihood of remaining disease free in later life, but engaging in health behaviors, such as physical activity, can help to ameliorate some of the noxious effects of early misfortune.