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Research report
Childhood socioeconomic status and adult health: comparing formative and reflective models in the Aberdeen Children of the 1950s Study (prospective cohort study)
  1. Gareth Hagger-Johnson1,
  2. G David Batty1,2,
  3. Ian J Deary2,
  4. Sophie von Stumm3
  1. 1Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, London, UK
  2. 2Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology, Department of Psychology, The University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK
  3. 3Department of Psychology, University of Chichester, Chichester, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Gareth Hagger-Johnson, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, 1–19 Torrington Place, London WC1E 6BT; g.hagger-johnson{at}


Background Health at midlife is associated with early-life socioeconomic status (SES), intelligence and education; the latter often used as a marker of SES in adulthood. SES is typically modelled as a latent construct with reflective indicators (where the construct causes the variables) but may be better operationalised as a formative trait (where the variables cause the construct). In this report, the authors explain the difference between these two approaches and evaluate reflective and formative modelling for the prediction of health outcomes.

Methods The Aberdeen Children of the 1950s Study comprises 12150 children from the Aberdeen area of Scotland, of whom 7183 completed a follow-up questionnaire in middle age. Data were available on indicators of parental SES at birth of the participant, childhood intelligence at age 11 and education and self-rated health at midlife.

Results Childhood SES predicted childhood intelligence and educational attainment in adulthood, both of which partially mediated the effects of SES on self-rated health. Both approaches produced well-fitting models (CFI>0.99, TLI>0.99 and RMSEA<0.03), detected indirect effects from parental SES to health (all ps<0.001) and accounted for similar proportions of variance in health.

Conclusions In these data, there was little difference between reflective and formative models of SES in their ability to elucidate pathways from childhood SES to adult health. Formative approaches to modelling SES seem appropriate theoretically, yet reflective models were equally informative. The outcome chosen here was self-rated health, but the models are extensible to other health outcomes. Results may differ in other data sets, suggesting that it is first appropriate to compare both strategies.

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  • Funding Prof Deary and Dr Batty are members of The University of Edinburgh Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology, part of the cross-council Lifelong Health and Wellbeing initiative (G0700704/84698). David Batty is a Wellcome Trust Career Development Fellow.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Ethics approval This study was conducted with the approval of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine ethics committee, the Grampian Research Ethics Committee and the Multi-Centre Research Ethics Committee for Scotland.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.