"Childhood disadvantage has long-term health consequences -- much longer than most of us realize," said study author Kenneth Ferraro, a professor and interim head of sociology at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.
"A novel aspect of this study is that childhood disadvantage was linked to the onset of new health problems decades later," he said in a university news release.
The researchers examined data from more than 1,700 adults who were surveyed in 1996 when they were between the ages of 25 and 74, and again in 2006 when they were aged 35 to 84.
"Health problems and quality-of-life issues were a concern during the first wave of the study," said Ferraro, director of Purdue's Center on Aging and the Life Course.
"However, when we revisited the study's adult participants 10 years later, childhood poverty and frequent abuse were related to the onset of new health problems, such as cancer and heart disease, even after we adjusted for risk factors including health lifestyle and socioeconomic status," he said.
The researchers only found an association, rather than a cause-and-effect link. Still, they said family composition during childhood -- such as if both parents were in the home -- appeared to play a role in health when the study participants were adults, but not to the same degree as poverty and physical or verbal abuse.
It's "possible we have underrepresented the relationship between childhood disadvantage and later life health problems because those most severely affected were not able to participate in a social survey," Ferraro said.
"But, now that we have identified some of the early origins of adult disease, we should focus on greater resources, even during midlife, to break the chain of risks," he said.
The study was published in the February issue of the journal American Sociological Review.
The Children's Defense Fund has more about child poverty