Social Inequality and Health Across the Life Course

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Pavalko, E. K. and Caputo, J. (2013) Social Inequality and Health Across the Life Course. American Behavioral Scientist, 57 (8). p. 1040.


Social inequalities in health persist across the life course, but the magnitude of these differences differs for children, young adults, and those in mid and later life. Longitudinal data confirm that health disparities do change as individuals move through the life course, that these processes are intertwined with selection and causation between socioeconomic status (SES) and health and from variation across cohorts representing vastly different historical contexts. Variations in health disparities across the life course offer unique opportunities to gain traction into understanding the production of these disparities. The life course perspective provides a rich set of concepts, methods, and a theoretical framework for guiding our inquiry into how SES disparities in health unfold as people live their lives. This article focuses attention on how socioeconomic conditions experienced as one is growing up relate to health and mortality across the adult life course. We first review recent work exploring the association between childhood SES and adult health and mortality, examining the evidence, and the types of questions raised, for early, mid, and later life. We then turn to a growing body of evidence examining accumulative processes between health and SES across the life course. We conclude with a discussion of three major gaps and promising directions that draw upon advances in life course research to advance our understanding of how inequality shapes health throughout the life course