This working paper summarises current knowledge about the biological consequences of social disadvantage in the first decades of life and how these contribute to health inequalities. People’s health varies depending on where they are on the ‘social gradient’. People in more advantaged socioeconomic circumstances live longer – and in better health – than those experiencing less advantage. Understanding why this is the case is an important step in addressing health inequalities. 

Studies have shown that socioeconomic disadvantage is associated with higher allostatic load. In turn, increased allostatic load has been associated with multiple chronic diseases. The relationship between social position and the biological embodiment of physiological responses that results in allostatic load operates through several pathways including the effects of behaviour, psychosocial responses, education and material deprivation. 

There is still much more to understand in this field. The scientific research on the concept of biological embodiment – how we literally incorporate the social world in which we live into our bodies’ cells, organs and systems – is still at an early stage. However, the evidence is consistent across the literature about the impact of socioeconomic disadvantages and stressful life conditions in childhood and adolescence on physiological and biological adaptive responses and the consequences of these for health outcomes. 

Cite this publication

Kelly-Irving M, 'Allostatic load How stress in childhood affects life-course health outcomes'. Health Foundation; 2019 (https://www.health.org.uk/publications/allostatic-load)

Further reading

Blog

Stress in childhood and over the life course – our bodies pay the price

15 August 2019
Blog

Research shows socioeconomic disadvantage during youth can have lasting physiological consequences....

Collection

Young people's future health inquiry

Collection

Our Young people’s future health inquiry is a first-of-its-kind research and engagement project that...

You might also like...

Event

Webinar: Making healthy decisions on urban development and planning

Event

Join us for the fourth and final webinar in this series sharing emerging findings from UKPRP-funded...

Register

Event

Webinar: Commercial determinants of health and health inequalities

Event

Catch up with the third webinar in this series sharing emerging findings from UKPRP-funded projects...

Watch video

Blog

Introducing Economies for Healthier Lives

Blog

How will our four projects, led by partners in Glasgow, Havant, Leeds and Liverpool, deliver...

Kjell-bubble-diagramArtboard 101 copy

Get social

This week's @ONS data revealed that nearly 25,000 people in care homes died of COVID-19 in 2020 – around one in six… https://t.co/5hpE0IvWUH

Follow us on Twitter
Kjell-bubble-diagramArtboard 101

Work with us

We look for talented and passionate individuals as everyone at the Health Foundation has an important role to play.

View current vacancies
Artboard 101 copy 2

The Q community

Q is an initiative connecting people with improvement expertise across the UK.

Find out more