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Personal Growth and Success Dependent on Prenatal Health

A path breaking study from the Journal of Political Economy has shown that in utero health has a great bearing on how the child shapes //up in adulthood. This study is important because of its ramifications on health programs that seek to make changes in the life of children that can have far reaching impact in adulthood, much more than conventional investments.

"The key distinction for policy purposes is that whereas heredity is immutable, congenital characteristics are mediated by the prenatal environment. This strongly suggests that economic outcomes are malleable in a way not widely recognized and therefore subject to improvement," explains Douglas Almond (Columbia University).

Detecting delayed effects is inherently difficult, and Almond ingeniously utilizes census microdata from three decades – including not only birth year, but birth quarter – to analyze the adult economic outcomes of those exposed in utero to the 1918 influenza pandemic. Twenty-five million people in the United States contracted influenza during the 1918 pandemic and survived. The pandemic struck without warning and lasted only a few months, meaning that those born a few months apart had markedly different in utero conditions. Additionally, the severity of the pandemic varied widely and idiosyncratically across states with little in common economically, demographically, climatically, or geographically.

"The 1918 influenza pandemic provides an exceptional opportunity to evaluate effects of prenatal environment using U.S. census data," writes Almond. "Some of the highest infection rates were observed among women of childbearing age, one third of whom contracted influenza."

Almond found that the children of infected mothers were 15 percent less likely to graduate from high school, and sons of infected mothers earned approximately $2,500 less per year than those who did not have fetal influenza exposure. Additionally, those who were in utero at the height
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