STUDY OBJECTIVES: To compare associations of childhood and adult socioeconomic position with cardiovascular risk factors measured in adulthood. To estimate the effects of adult socioeconomic position after adjustment for childhood circumstances. DESIGN: Cross sectional survey, using the relative index of inequality method to compare socioeconomic differences at different life stages. SETTING: The Whitehall II longitudinal study of men and women employed in London offices of the Civil Service at study baseline in 1985-88. PARTICIPANTS: 4774 men and 2206 women born in the period 1930-53 who were administered questions on early socioeconomic circumstances. MAIN RESULTS: Adult occupational position (employment grade) was inversely associated (high status-low risk) with current smoking and leisure time physical inactivity, with waist/height, and with metabolic risk factors HDL cholesterol, triglycerides, post-load glucose and fibrinogen. Associations of these variables with childhood socioeconomic position (father's Registrar General Social Class) were weaker or absent, with the exception of smoking in women. Childhood social position was associated with adult weight in both sexes and with current smoking, waist/height, HDL cholesterol and fibrinogen in women. Height, a measure of health capital or constitution, was weakly linked with father's social class and more strongly linked with own employment grade. The combination of childhood disadvantage (low father's class) together with a low status clerical occupation in men was particularly associated with higher body mass index as an adult (interaction test p < 0.001). Adjustment for earlier socioeconomic position--using father's class and own education level simultaneously--did not weaken the effects of adult socioeconomic position, except in the case of smoking in women, when the grade effect was reduced by 59 per cent. CONCLUSIONS: Cardiovascular risk factors in adulthood were in general more strongly related to adult than to childhood socioeconomic position. Among women but not men there was a strong but unexplained link between father's class and adult smoking habit. In both sexes degree of obesity was associated with both childhood and adulthood social position. These findings suggest that the socially patterned accumulation of health capital and cardiovascular risk begins in childhood and continues, according to socioeconomic position, during adulthood.
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