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Longevity and nutrition in childhood: urban and rural experiences in 19th-century Belgium

George Alter, Indiana University
Michel Oris, Université de Genève

Recent studies suggest that poor conditions in early childhood may have long-term effects on adult and old age mortality. We make use of a natural experiment resulting from rural to urban migration in the mid-nineteenth century Belgium. Mortality was much higher in urban areas, especially in rapidly growing industrial cities. Many migrants came from healthier rural origins. We find evidence of three processes that lead to differences between the mortality of migrants and natives. First, recent migrants have lower mortality than natives, because they are self-selected for good health. Second, migrants from rural backgrounds had a disadvantage in epidemic years, because they had less experience with epidemic diseases. Third, migrants from rural areas had lower mortality above age 60, even if they had migrated more than ten years earlier. We interpret the latter as a long-run consequence of less exposure to disease in childhood.

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Presented in Session 8: Longevity: the influence of kin ties and early-life conditions