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Adverse early life experience and development may have long-term health consequences, but later environmental conditions may perhaps protect against the effects of such early life adversities. The aim was to investigate whether cause-specific and overall mortality rates among adoptees are associated with the age at which they were transferred to the adoptive family and whether the social class of the adoptive family modifies this association.
A cohort of 10,592 non-familial adoptions (biologically unrelated adoptee and adoptive parents) of Danish-born children formally granted in 1924–47 and with follow-up of total and cause-specific mortality through ages up to 85 years. The rates of death after the age of 16 from all causes combined, all natural causes, all external causes, and suicide were compared according to the age at which adoptees were transferred to their adoptive family by estimating hazard ratios in Cox regression models.
Death rates from all causes were significantly higher in adoptees transferred between age 1 month and 4 years compared to those transferred immediately after birth with the hazard ratio peaking at 1.19 (95% confidence limit: 1.08 to 1.32) for adoptees transferred between 6 and 11 months. This result was primarily driven by a similar pattern for natural causes of death. For death from external causes and for suicide the hazard ratios were increasing with increasing age at transfer, and tests for trend were statistically significant. The social class of the adoptive family did not significantly modify these associations.
Transfer to an adoptive family later than at the time of birth may have adverse long-term consequences affecting overall and cause-specific mortality. These effects were not modified by the environment provided by the adoptive family as indicated by the social class of these families.