Associations of head circumference at birth with early life school performance and later-life occupational prestige


  • Serhiy Dekhtyar Karolinska Institute
  • Hui-Xin Wang Karolinska Institutet and Stockholm University.
  • Kirk Scott Lund University and Stockholm University
  • Anna Goodman London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
  • Ilona Koupil Stockholm University/Karolinska Institutet
  • Agneta Herlitz Karolinska Institutet



Longitudinal Study, Population-level Data, Early-life Environments, Childhood Intelligence, Life-time Status Attainment


Head circumference at birth has been suggested as a marker of foetal brain development. New-borns with small head size have been shown to have lower intelligence scores in childhood. It is, however, unclear whether this relationship extends into adult life, and more importantly, whether adult status attainment and lifetime success is affected as a result. Furthermore it is unclear how social origin at birth attenuates the relationship between foetal brain development, childhood cognitive outcomes, and lifetime status attainment. Using the Uppsala Birth Cohort Multigenerational Study, a unique population-based database of 14,192 individuals followed from birth into advanced old age, we demonstrate that those born with small head circumference experience reductions in both early-life school performance and lifetime occupational prestige. These effects are not subject to modification by parental social class: small head size at birth is associated with lower grades and lower occupational prestige among individuals born into both advantaged and disadvantaged social classes. Employing causal mediation analysis, we also demonstrate that the link between head circumference at birth and adult occupational prestige is mainly the result of a direct effect, although a portion of this effect is also mediated by early-life school performance which also contributes to occupational attainment trajectories. These findings demonstrate the importance of early-life environments for cognitive development as well as lifetime status attainment.

Author Biographies

Serhiy Dekhtyar, Karolinska Institute

PhD, Postdoctoral Research Fellow. Clinical Neuroscience Department, Section of Psychology

Hui-Xin Wang, Karolinska Institutet and Stockholm University.

Associate Professor, Aging Research Center, Department of Neurobiology, Care Sciences and Society (NVS)

Kirk Scott, Lund University and Stockholm University

Associate Professor, Centre for Economic Demography, Department of Economic History, Lund University and Stockholm University Demography Unit

Anna Goodman, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

PhD, Postdoctorate Research Fellow. Faculty of Epidemiology and Population Health.

Ilona Koupil, Stockholm University/Karolinska Institutet

Professor, Centre for Health and Equity Studies (CHESS)

Agneta Herlitz, Karolinska Institutet

Professor, Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Section of Psychology


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