Finnish war children, that is, Finnish children who were evacuated to safety in Sweden during the second world war, faced greater hardships than children who remained in Finland, a new study funded by the Academy of Finland suggests. In particular, there are marked differences in the risk for heart diseases and diabetes as well as in the prevalence of mental health problems.
The study was conducted using data from the Helsinki Birth Cohort Study, a longitudinal birth cohort study of 13,345 children born in two maternity hospitals in Helsinki in 1934-44. Of these children, 1,778 were sent to Sweden, unaccompanied by their parents, to avoid war. The data were collected from the Child Evacuee Registry of the National Archives of Finland.
"A comparison between child evacuees and those who stayed behind can improve our understanding of the consequences of early life stress and its strain on children's lives," explains researcher Anu-Katriina Pesonen, who headed the study. "The results show that early life stress exposure significantly affected the children's lives, although most of the evacuees later felt the evacuation had been a positive experience."
The biological changes caused by the evacuation included an elevated risk for heart diseases and diabetes as well as an earlier onset of puberty and transformations in stress reactivity. In addition, Pesonen's study concludes that evacuees were more likely to have their first child at a younger age than those who stayed in Finland. They also had shorter interpregnancy intervals and more children overall.
There were also psychological consequences, such as an increased risk for mental health issues, in particular related to personality disorders and substance abuse. Compared to children left behind, the risk for mental disorders was about twice as high for children in the evacuation programme with parents who were high-ranking government officials. In the lower social classes, evacuation did not seem to add to the already heightened risk for mental health problems.
The study also shows that, compared to their peers who stayed in Finland, male evacuees fared slightly better in cognitive tests conducted in the army and again in old age, 50 years later. Participation in the evacuation programme did not, however, in any way affect the cognitive changes directly associated with old age. Socio-economic consequences included a career-long reduction in income growth as well as an increased probability of becoming more disadvantaged socio-economically compared to the evacuee's own father.
Finnish war children are children who were evacuated from Finland to the other Nordic countries, mainly to Sweden, during the second world war. Between 1939 and 1945, during the winter war and the continuation war, a total of approximately 72,000 children were sent to Sweden. Some 15,500 of these children did not return to Finland.
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