Childhood respiratory infections, including pneumonia, bronchiolitis, and asthma, are common and can be severe. These infections can cause inflammation and swelling in the airways, making breathing difficult for children. In severe cases, respiratory infections can lead to hospitalization and even death.
Unfortunately, the effects of childhood respiratory infections can extend beyond childhood. Studies have shown that individuals who experience childhood respiratory infections are at increased risk for premature adult mortality. This means that they are more likely to die at a younger age than individuals who did not experience childhood respiratory infections.
There are several reasons why childhood respiratory infections can increase the risk of premature adult mortality. First, repeated infections can lead to chronic lung damage and inflammation, increasing the risk of developing chronic respiratory diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) later in life. Second, respiratory infections can weaken the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to other diseases and infections. Finally, childhood respiratory infections can affect overall health and well-being, including increased risk of cardiovascular disease and other chronic health conditions.
Given the potential long-term health consequences of childhood respiratory infections, preventing and managing these infections in childhood is essential. This includes promoting good hygiene practices, ensuring children receive recommended vaccinations, and seeking prompt medical attention for respiratory symptoms. Addressing childhood respiratory infections early can help reduce the risk of premature adult mortality and promote better health outcomes for individuals throughout their lives.
A new study published in The Lancet and published in Health Policy Watch has found that respiratory infections contracted in early childhood can nearly double the risk of dying prematurely from respiratory diseases as an adult. The study followed a British cohort of over 3,500 people from their births in 1946 and then again between the ages of 26 and 73.
The researchers found that those who contracted lower respiratory tract infections (LRTIs) like bronchitis or pneumonia before age two were 93% more likely to die prematurely from respiratory diseases as an adult. This increased risk was observed regardless of socioeconomic background or whether they were smokers.
It challenges the conventional wisdom that adult mortality from respiratory diseases is exclusively linked to lifestyle choices like smoking. The risk of premature death caused by respiratory diseases in England and Wales is small, at just 1.1% on average. However, for those who suffered LTRIs as infants, that risk jumps to 2.1%. The study found this increased risk accounted for one in five premature respiratory disease deaths in England and Wales between 1972 and 2019, compared to three in five caused by smoking.
Respiratory diseases account for an estimated 7% of worldwide deaths globally, killing 3.9 million people in 2017. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) caused most of these deaths, 90% of which occurred in low- and middle-income countries. By 2030, the World Health Organization projects COPD will be the world’s third leading cause of death.
The study’s lead author, Dr. James Allinson of Imperial College London, emphasizes the importance of optimizing childhood health to prevent the perpetuation of existing adult health inequalities. “Linking one in five adult respiratory deaths to common infections many decades earlier in childhood shows the need to target risk well before adulthood,” he said. Study co-author Rebecca Hardy of Loughborough University hopes that “this study will help guide international health organizations in tackling this issue.”