May 3, 2007

Prof Links Childhood Stress to Adult Problems

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Gary Evans, the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology, wrote a paper in which he investigated the link between the children’s chronic exposure to risk and their subsequent tendencies to contract diseases later in life. Pilyoung Kim grad, Albert Ting ’98, Harris Tesher ’03 and Dana Sjanis ’03 worked on the paper with Evans. It was published in “Developmental Psychology” in March.
The paper represents the second wave of a longitudinal study that Evans has been conducting for over a decade. The study’s purpose is to examine the effects poverty has on children.
The study involves a group of several hundred rural upstate New York individuals who are now in their early 20s. Every few years, they are re-examined so that the health effects poverty can be determined.
The paper that has just been published involves data that was collected when the subjects were in either seventh or eighth grade. Evans said the data was collected “to look at all systems in a person to see how many [were] not functioning optimally” as a result of the risks in the children’s environments.
Evans’ goal was to measure the risk factors the children faced and see how they affected the children’s health. Shoshana Aleinikoff ’09, one of Evans’ research assistants, said that Evans’ work is unique because rather than simply saying the risks that contribute to higher levels of disease later in life, this study examines the exact toll stress takes on the body.
To understand this, researchers measured the children’s body mass indexes and blood pressures and used urine samples to check their metabolisms and cardiovascular and neuroendocrine systems. The experimenters also measured each child for nine risk factors, including the quality, crowdedness and noise level of their homes, as well as family turmoil and poverty.
The study found that the greater number of risks the children encountered, the more likely they were to have higher percentages of body fat, higher blood pressure, and greater levels of stress hormones in their urine. “It was sad to see these kids’ poor health and behavioral problems because of their stress,” Kim said.
According to Kim, the study did find “something positive” among the data: children who have responsive mothers encountered less of these negative effects. Maternal responsiveness was measured by the answers that the subjects gave on questionnaires as well as by videotaping the children’s interactions with their mothers.
Unfortunately, maternal responsiveness did not buffer the children’s reactions and recoveries when put under pressure. The children were asked by the experimenters to perform subtraction problems in their heads while their blood pressure was taken.
The more “at-risk” children’s blood pressures did not go up as high during the task, meaning they were less reactive, so it took longer for their blood pressure to go back down, or “recover,” once the task was over. Evans said this meant that because of the chronic stresses they face, the children’s “ability to react may be compromised.”
Evans hopes that his study will provide more understanding about how different variables such as stress affect child development. He hopes that his research will make a difference in bringing about the necessary changes to ensure that “fewer kids will suffer from these situations.”