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Journal Issue: Children with Disabilities Volume 22 Number 1 Spring 2012

Childhood Health: Trends and Consequences over the Life Course
Liam Delaney James P. Smith


While the raw data show sharp increases in the prevalence of most childhood physical health problems over time, such data are also consistent with improved detection of childhood disease, especially since many causes of childhood disease have not become worse over time. Conclusions about rapidly rising rates of childhood physical health problems over time are premature at best, especially concerning the magnitude of trends. Documenting real changes in the prevalence of specific diseases is a high-priority research topic. In contrast, the evidence that childhood mental health problems are becoming worse over time is much stronger.

We find that both childhood physical and mental health problems result in poorer adult health. However, childhood mental health problems have much larger impacts than do childhood physical health problems on four critical areas of socioeconomic status as an adult: education, weeks worked in a year, individual earnings, and family income. For example, mental health problems in childhood are associated with a 37 percent decline in family income, three times greater than the decline related to having physical health problems.

Finally, we examine evidence on the efficacy of early mental health treatment for children in terms of promoting good health later on. Existing studies suggest that a combination of the use of cognitive behavioral therapy and medication appears to be effective in the treatment of both anxiety and depression in children. However, much more research is needed on the long-run efficacy of these childhood interventions. Clinical trials have been too short to evaluate the long-term impacts of medication, and the impacts are definitively long term.