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01.12.2015 | Research article | Ausgabe 1/2016 Open Access

BMC Public Health 1/2016

The emergence of health inequalities in early adulthood: evidence on timing and mechanisms from a West of Scotland cohort

BMC Public Health > Ausgabe 1/2016
Helen Sweeting, Michael Green, Michaela Benzeval, Patrick West
Wichtige Hinweise

Electronic supplementary material

The online version of this article (doi:10.​1186/​s12889-015-2674-5) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Authors’ contributions

All authors contributed to all (PW) or some (MB, MG, HS) Twenty-07 sweeps, including design, data collection and management. PW conceived the study reported here. HS first-drafted the introduction and discussion and co-ordinated all re-drafts. MG conducted the analyses and first-drafted the methods and results. All authors discussed results, commented on various stages and contributed to the final manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.



Evidence is inconsistent as to whether or not there are health inequalities in adolescence according to socio-economic position (SEP) and whether or when they emerge in early adulthood. Despite the large health inequalities literature, few studies have simultaneously compared the relative importance of ‘health selection’ versus ‘social causation’ at this life-stage. This study followed a cohort through the youth-adult transition to: (1) determine whether, and if so, when, health inequalities became evident according to both class of origin and current SEP; (2) compare the importance of health selection and social causation mechanisms; and (3) investigate whether these phenomena vary by gender.


Data are from a West-of-Scotland cohort, surveyed five times between age 15 (in 1987, N=1,515, response=85%) and 36. Self-reported physical and mental health were obtained at each survey. SEP was based on parental occupational class at 15, a combination of own education or occupational status at 18 and own occupational class (with an additional non-employment category) at older ages. In respect of when inequalities emerged, we used the relative index of inequality to examine associations between both parental and own current SEP and health at each age. In respect of mechanisms, path models, including SEP and health at each age, investigated both inter and intra-generational paths from SEP to health (‘causation’) and from health to SEP (‘selection’). Analyses were conducted separately for physical and mental health, and stratified by gender.


Associations between both physical and mental health and parental SEP were non-significant at every age. Inequalities according to own SEP emerged for physical health at 24 and for mental health at 30. There was no evidence of selection based on physical health, but some evidence of associations between mental health in early adulthood and later SEP (intra-generational selection). Paths indicated intra-generational (males) and inter-generational (females) social causation of physical health inequalities, and intra-generational (males and females) and inter-generational (females) social causation of mental health inequalities.


The results suggest complex and reciprocal relationships between SEP and health and highlight adolescence and early adulthood as a sensitive period for this process, impacting on future life-chances and health.
Additional file 1: Supplementary Tables 1-4 (health measures according to SEP at each age).ᅟ
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