Early Life Experience & Successful Aging

Proponents of the “successful aging” model argue that later-life aging should be viewed as more than a process of physical and cognitive decline. The successful aging model focuses on the goals and experiences that can emerge in older adulthood, such as the maintenance of cognitive functioning and engagement in new social roles. Recently, some scholars of successful aging have incorporated a “life course” perspective, which examines the effects of early-life experience on aging. A recent study in The Gerontologist examined the relationship between childhood misfortune and the avoidance of disease in later life—which is a major goal of successful aging.

Existing research from the life course perspective has identified several childhood risk factors that can lead to later health problems. Although it is rare for any individual to remain disease-free throughout adulthood, those who suffer misfortune early in life tend to have a greater number of ailments as older adults. However, there is a subset of individuals who are able to avoid disease, which is greatly relevant to the field of successful aging. The study discussed here differs from previous research in that it brings together the successful aging and life course perspectives and asks the question: doeschildhood misfortune reduce the likelihood of being disease-free in later life?

Researchers in this particular study used data from a representative sample of over 3,000 adults in the United States. Participants were surveyed at two points, ten years apart, and assessed for the presence of 28 different physical conditions. Participants were also asked about relevant, present-day variables (such as social support and education), and whether they experienced several forms of childhood misfortune such as abuse, the death of a parent, or poor physical health. The researchers assessed whether—when factoring in the present-day variables—early childhood misfortune affected the likelihood of remaining disease-free. The researchers acknowledge that the recollection of childhood events is subject to both bias and forgetting, and claim that past research suggests individuals are more likely to underestimate early adversity than they are to overestimate it.

Within the sample, early misfortune had a similar effect on disease avoidance as the combination of moderate cigarette smoking and obesity; (this is not to say that early misfortune has the same health consequences as smoking and obesity). For 27 of the 28 conditions assessed in the survey, those with the disease had a higher number of childhood misfortunes than those without the disease. The researchers also examined the relationship between the number of childhood misfortunes and the likelihood of being free of all 28 conditions at either the first or second time point. They found that—at all ages and points of time—a greater exposure to childhood misfortune made individuals less likely to be disease-free. It appears, then, that early childhood misfortune makes a disease-free adulthood more unlikely.

Successful aging research has only recently begun to incorporate a life course perspective to examine the role of early-life misfortune. These findings suggest that efforts to improve the lives of children may be an important component of successful aging.


Schafer MH and Ferraro KF, (2012). Childhood misfortune as a threat to successful aging: avoiding disease. The Gerontologist 52(1):111-120.

Self-Fulfilling ProphecyHow Perceptions of Aging Affect Our Later Years

Learn how older adults’ perceptions of aging—and their self-perceptions—can have serious effects on their health, behaviors, and even longevity.

Download FREE Copy

    Add insight to your inbox

    Join our email list to receive information about the latest research from Mather Institute. Just complete the form below to subscribe.

    Thank you!

    You are now subscribed to the email list.
    A confirmation has been sent to the email you provided.

    Continue to Website Share with a Friend