There is a clear relationship between cognitive ability in childhood and the odds of taking long-term sick leave as an adult, a new study suggests.
Dr Max Henderson of King’s College London and his colleagues analysed data from more than 23,000 members of the 1946, 1958 and 1970 British birth cohort studies. They compared data on cognitive ability collected at age 10 or 11 to the most recent data on long-term sick leave, which was collected when participants were aged 53 (1946 cohort), 42 (1958 cohort) and 34 (1970 cohort).
In the 1946 cohort, 47 per cent of those on long-term sick leave were in the bottom quarter of ability as children, compared to 13 per cent from the top quarter. Findings were similar for the other two cohorts. For the 1958 cohort, 41 per cent of those on long-term sick leave were among the least able, compared to 12 per cent of the most able. In the 1970 cohort, the proportions were 49 per cent and 22 per cent respectively.
Long-term sick leave can result in increased chances of living in poverty, loss of dignity, reduced social participation and premature death. The cost to British society of the reduced tax revenues and benefit payments resulting from long-term sick leave is estimated at more than £50 billion a year.
Much of the policy response to long-term sick leave has focused on reducing occupational risk factors. The study’s authors suggest that “education should form part of the policy response to long-term sickness absence: for future generations, equipping children with skills necessary for labour market flexibility may inoculate them from the risk of long-term sickness absence.”
The 1958 and 1970 cohort studies are managed by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Institute of Education.