Allostatic load

How stress in childhood affects life-course health outcomes

August 2019

Michelle Kelly-Irving
20190815 - Allostatic load - Publication cover with  border

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. 

Further reading

Blog

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

Research shows socioeconomic disadvantage during youth can have lasting physiological consequences. Liz Cairncross lays out t...

Collection

Young people's future health inquiry

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

You might also like...

Blog

Should we bother about the future? If so, how much?

The future is complex and uncertain, but not predetermined. In many areas policy decisions taken (or not taken) today will sh...

Blog

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

Research shows socioeconomic disadvantage during youth can have lasting physiological consequences. Liz Cairncross lays out t...

Research report

Building healthier communities: the role of the NHS as an anchor institution

Our new report explores the ways in which NHS organisations act as anchor institutions, and their potential to positively inf...

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