During the last several decades much has been published on the link between poverty and poor health.
Several studies have shown a negative correlation between income level and mortality, chronic disease, and mental health — as incomes decrease, health risks tend to increase. But can the effects of poverty penetrate so deeply as to influence a person’s genetic makeup? Recent scientific evidence suggests that adverse social conditions may in fact have genetic consequences.
The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, focused on the idea that chronic stress can be measured through the shortening of telomere length. Telomeres are found at the ends of chromosomes in DNA molecules. Every time DNA replicates through cell division its ends are shortened. The telomere’s job is to protect the genetic information that would otherwise be lost. As DNA continues to replicate, telomere length naturally shortens. However, the shortening of telomere levels due to chronic stress, as opposed to normal cell function, accelerates the shortening of telomere length. This “unnatural” shortening is believed to cause a sort of expedited aging process leaving an individual more susceptible to illness and disease. Scientists observed DNA samples obtained through saliva of children aged 9, who were classified as disadvantaged in the following areas: economic conditions, parenting quality, family structure/stability, and maternal depression. The study concluded that those who are living under a backdrop of poor economic and social conditions saw a significant acceleration of the shortening of telomere levels compared to the shortening that is due to normal cell functions.
Any non-scientist can clearly see the stress that is evident in the struggle that is every day life. Particularly amongst those who have so little. As a teacher, I have seen first-hand the stress that children face in the poorest of communities. I have seen teenaged students forced to miss significantly large portions of a school year to care for younger sibling because parents are working several jobs to make ends meet. I have seen children come to class hungry, cold, and sick because of a lack of proper nutrition and health care. The effects of these highly visible social issues may have found an even more firm standing in scientific study.
University of Wisconson-Madison, Institute for Research on Poverty (http://www.irp.wisc.edu/research/health.htm)
Mitchell, Colter, Sara Mclanahan, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Irwin Garfinkel, John Hobcraft, and Daniel Notterman. “Genetic Differential Sensitivity to Social Environments: Implications for Research.” American Journal of Public Health 103.S1 (2013): S102-110. Web.