Diagram of the lungs

Early-life respiratory disease doubles risk of premature death in adulthood

Those who have had a lower respiratory tract infection (LRTI) as a child are at a much higher risk of dying from respiratory disease as an adult, new research has revealed.

The findings come from a study conducted by Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust in collaboration with Imperial College London, University College London and Loughborough University and show how, if someone has had a LRTI like bronchitis or pneumonia by the age of two, they’re almost twice as likely to die prematurely in adulthood from respiratory diseases.

Guy’s and St Thomas’ say the research challenges the idea that respiratory deaths post-childhood are only down to behaviours in adulthood as well as highlighting the need to curb childhood respiratory infections by using targeted public health measures and interventions.

Respiratory Medicine Consultant at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Royal Brompton Hospital and Lead Study Author, Dr James Allinson, said: “Current preventative measures for adult respiratory disease mainly focus on adult lifestyle risk factors such as smoking. Linking one in five adult respiratory deaths to common infections many decades earlier in childhood shows the need to target risk well before adulthood.

“To prevent the perpetuation of existing adult health inequalities we need to optimise childhood health, not least by tackling childhood poverty. Evidence suggesting the early life origins of adult chronic diseases also helps challenge the stigma that all deaths from diseases such as COPD are related to lifestyle factors.”

The researchers say this increased risk could account for nearly 180,000 premature deaths across England and Wales between 1972 and 2019 – the equivalent of one in five deaths from respiratory disease.

Previous research has connected childhood LRTIs with the development of adult lung function impairments and conditions like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, but the link between death has remained unclear. The researchers say this study provides the best evidence for how early-life LRTIs impact adult mortality.

To access the study, click here.

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