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Evidence on Early-Life Income and Late-Life Health from America’s Dust Bowl Era

Publication Date: 
June 5, 2007

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 104(33): 13244-13249, 2007 (with David Cutler and Doug Norton)

In recent decades, elderly Americans have enjoyed enormous gains in longevity and reductions in disability. The causes of this progress remain unclear, however. This paper investigates the role of fetal programming, exploring how economic progress early in the 20th century might be related to declining disability today. Specifically, we match sudden unexpected economic changes experienced in utero in America's Dust Bowl during the Great Depression to unusually detailed individual-level information about old-age disability and chronic disease. We are unable to detect any meaningful relationship between early life factors and outcomes in later life. We conclude that, if such a relationship exists in the United States, it is most likely not a quantitatively important explanation for declining disability today.