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Asymmetrical elderly faces trace history of childhood poverty

Researchers note that being poor in childhood might lead to greater irregularities in facial symmetry many decades later.

What you see in the mirror in old age may reflect more than your features. According to researchers publishing in a July, 2011 issue of Economics and Human Biology, the symmetry of those features can trace your early history. Studying a group of octogenarians, David Hope, Timothy Bates, and colleagues found that being poor in childhood led to greater irregularities in facial symmetry many decades later, but not in body symmetry.

The researchers measured the facial and body symmetry of 292 people who are part of the Lothian Birth Cohort 1921, one of two birth cohorts under study at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. The year 1921 is of interest because almost every schoolchild in Scotland born in that year took a mental ability test known as the Moray House Test.

A group of children in 1921. The faces and influences of childhood never quite leave us. Image Credit: Yvette Hoitink, via Flickr.

Click here to expand image above and see more from Yvette Hoitink.

One of the goals of Hope’s and Bates’ study is to re-test anyone in this group who took that test in 1932 to see how much their scores have changed after the passage of many decades. Another study goal, though, has been to measure the symmetry of their bodies and faces to determine how these measures relate to their socioeconomic status in childhood and their middle years.

Hope and colleagues found that being poorer in childhood was related to having a more asymmetrical face in late adulthood, but that midlife economic status did not affect facial regularity. Further, they discovered a stronger link between a poor childhood and facial asymmetry in men than in women.

They concluded that the marks of childhood deprivation linger long after the fact. But why would poverty result in an asymmetrical face? Previous studies have shown that stress during sensitive developmental periods – in the womb, during childhood – might disrupt developmental symmetry or other features. A study from a few years back, for example, found a link between adults with asymmetrical body features, such as hands, wrists, ankles, and ear height. It seems that when parts are paired, like eyes or ears or feet, stress may disrupt what should be their similarly paced development.

Is this study simply about identifying people with crooked faces? No. The study authors note links between a low socioeconomic status and a lifetime of poor health and suggest that these facial asymmetries are simply a part of this broader picture.

As David Hope, Timothy Bates, and colleagues point out, what happens to us in our earliest years may never quite go away, and we may find it in our old age staring back at us from the mirror.

Bottom line: A group of researchers including David Hope, Timothy Bates, and others found that being poor in childhood led to greater irregularities in facial symmetry many decades later, but not in body symmetry.

Emily Willingham

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