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Childhood temperament linked to adult sickness absence

03 March 2009

Dr Max Henderson and colleagues at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London have published new research in the British Journal of Psychiatry this month demonstrating a strong association with sickness absence in middle age.

The researchers drew on 7,100 people born in Aberdeen between 1950 and 1955 and found that those described as ‘unhappy’ or ‘miserable’ by their teachers were five times more likely to be off work in middle age because of health issues.   

During the 1960s data was collected on the children’s educational performance and how regularly they attended primary school. Teachers were asked to assess each child’s behaviour, temperament and reasons for missing school. In 2001, the researchers followed up the participants to find out their current employment status and found that 392 of the participants (5.5%) said they were ‘permanently sick or disabled’. There was no evidence that those children who were regularly absent from school because of poor physical health were more likely to be sick or disabled in later life. However, there was a link between the children’s temperament at school – as reported by their teachers – and long-term sickness absence.  

In addition, over 10% of the children whose teachers described them as ‘tending to be fearful or afraid of new things or new situations’ or ‘tending to be absent from school for trivial reasons’ were out of work in adulthood.

 The researchers believe there are a ‘range of vulnerabilities’ established in childhood that influence behaviour in later life. For example, children who show signs of problematic behaviour and temperament may be more likely to have symptoms of depression and anxiety in later life. They may also have unexplained physical symptoms, and be less able to manage or tolerate minor discomfort and pain. 

Lead researcher Dr Max Henderson said: 'We can't say these childhood trends cause the ill-health later in life, but they certainly seem to be a contributing factor.  

'Based on previous research, we suspect these groups are more susceptible to depression and anxiety, which of course is a major cause of being off work.' 

Please refer to the journal for a full copy of the paper. Childhood temperament and long-term sickness absence in adult life: Henderson M, Hotopf M and Leon DA (2009) British Journal of Psychiatry, 194: 220-223

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