November 14, 2007

Study Points to Stress-Related Health Risks for Impoverished Youth

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In a new study published this month by the journal Psychological Science, Prof. Gary Evans, design and environmental analysis, has found that poverty-induced stress triggers physiological responses in adolescents and children. This is the first research of its kind as previous studies have focused primarily on how poverty affects adults.
One of the goals of the study was to observe what parts of the body break down after an individual is chronically exposed to poverty. According to the report, entitled “Childhood Poverty and Health: Cumulative Risk Exposure and Stress Dysregulation,” it is widely known that poverty and low socioeconomic status contribute to poor health, but Evans set out to understand what mechanisms generate changes in the body that lead to a health decline. To do this, he measured how cumulative risk factors affect the body’s stress regulation system using a variety of tests.
The six risk factors he looked at included three physical risks and three social risks. The physical risks included crowding, noise and substandard housing, while the three social factors were family turmoil, separation from parents and exposure to violence.
Co-author Pilyoung Kim grad, said this study relied on measuring the allostatic load, which is a combination of several physiological indicators that manifest the effects of stressful stimuli through various organs and tissue in the body.
Evans and his team of researchers collected data from over 200 children ages eight to thirteen, 53 percent of whom were living below the poverty line. The team submitted each subject to stress-induced activity such as mental arithmetic.
In addition to mental exercises, the study used a battery of tests to assess damage on the children’s stress regulation system.
As a result of a diminished stress regulation system, the body is less able to cope with daily demands, leading to long-term wear and tear of the immune system. In children, this damage is manifested in the form of elevated blood pressure and raised level of stress hormones. For adults, having an inefficient immune system could lead to an increase risk in development cardiovascular diseases as well as other diseases.
Shoshana Aleinikoff ’08 acted as the project manager for the laboratory. She explained that the children were given examples of stressful scenarios, like being accused of cheating on an English test. The research team then videotaped the childrens’ responses to each situation. The video camera was ostensibly in the room to record the children’s reactions, but actually tested how the kids responded to the presence of the video camera in the room.
Of these types of activities, Aleinikoff said, “one of the most difficult things as a researcher was to intentionally stress the kids out.”
What the research found was that children who are chronically exposed to conditions prevalent in poverty exhibited signs of damage in the stress regulation system. Such signs included increased levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and muted responses in cardiovascular activity.
According to Evans, his research would seem to discredit the American dream.
“There’s an American myth that you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps, but there is a lot of evidence to the contrary,” he said. “People just have less opportunity. . . There are children at eight [years old] who have elevated stress hormones and blood pressure. How are they going to pull themselves up?”
“Despite peoples’ image of what the media portrays, most poor people are white, not people of color,” Evans continued. “There is a lot of evidence that indicates rural poverty is more pervasive and it predominantly affects white children living in rural areas.”
Evans pointed out that the higher number of Caucasian children living in poverty is partly due to the fact that white people comprise the majority of the country’s population, and that people of color have a higher percentage of poverty overall.
He explained there is a linear gradient for life expectancy that correlates with how much money a person makes. According to the gradient, wealthy individuals are more likely to live longer.
“Do you think someone who is a high school teacher will live longer than someone who is a bank president?” he said.
Evans’ research suggests a shorter life expectancy.
Rural poverty is distinct in that it lacks the infrastructure for social mobility. According to an article in the Sept. issue of Finance and Development, it is easier to move out of urban poverty than rural poverty because urbanization has led to growth in a variety of job sectors, allowing urban residents to achieve a higher income.
Additionally, more people are likely to flee rural areas to an urban environment where a variety of jobs are available. Rural areas consist of agricultural and manufacturing sectors, which have recently seen slow growth, especially in upstate N.Y.
Aleinikoff added, “Within a two-hour radius of Cornell, there are a lot fewer resources in areas where they are most needed. There is little to no rural health care infrastructure, which only intensifies the problem . . . It’s cyclical.”
To better stabilize this economic disparity, Evans suggested reducing the slope of the gradient that measures life expectancy according to economic status. Though not eliminating the differences between income levels, it would minimize the overall impact of these differences on a person’s health.
Evans presented his findings to the Robert W. Johnson Foundation Commission to Build a Better America last month.