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Early-life exposure to severe famine and subsequent risk of depressive symptoms in late adulthood: the China Health and Retirement Longitudinal Study

  • Changwei Li (a1), Toni Miles (a2), Luqi Shen (a3), Ye Shen (a4), Tingting Liu (a5), Mengxi Zhang (a6), Shengxu Li (a7) and Cheng Huang (a8)...

The Chinese Great Famine caused widespread starvation in 1959–1961. Its long-term association with depressive symptoms has not been studied.


To estimate the burden of depressive symptoms and the association of famine exposure with depressive symptoms.


The China Health and Retirement Longitudinal Study is a nationwide representative survey of 17 708 Chinese adults aged ≥45. Propensity score matching and modified Poisson regression were used to evaluate the association between self-reported famine exposure in early life and depressive symptoms among the overall participants. Such associations were also assessed by developmental stage using modified Poisson regression and logistic regression.


The prevalence of depressive symptoms was 26.2% (95% CI 25.1–27.3%) in 2011. As defined by loss of family members because of starvation, 11.6% (95% CI 10.1–13.1%) of this population experienced severe famine. When compared with participants who did not experience starvation, those who had experienced severe famine during fetal, mid-childhood, young-teenage and early-adulthood stages had 1.87 (95% CI 1.36–2.55), 1.54 (95% CI 1.23–1.94), 1.47 (95% CI 1.09–2.00) and 1.77 (95% CI 1.42–2.21) times higher odds of having depressive symptoms in late adulthood, respectively. The first two trimesters of pregnancy were a critical time window during the fetal stage when severe famine had a stronger association with depressive symptoms. Famine during infant, toddler, preschool or teenage stages was not associated with depressive symptoms. Overall, famine contributed to 13.6% of the depressive symptom burden in this population.


The Chinese Great Famine contributed substantially to the burden of depressive symptoms in China.

Declaration of interest


Corresponding author
Correspondence: Cheng Huang, School of Economics and Management, Harbin Institute of Technology (Shenzhen), Building E Room 412, Nanshan District, Shenzhen 518055, Guangdong, China. Email:
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Early-life exposure to severe famine and subsequent risk of depressive symptoms in late adulthood: the China Health and Retirement Longitudinal Study

  • Changwei Li (a1), Toni Miles (a2), Luqi Shen (a3), Ye Shen (a4), Tingting Liu (a5), Mengxi Zhang (a6), Shengxu Li (a7) and Cheng Huang (a8)...
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