Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Stress & Poverty Alters Poor Children's Genes

Family Life

An article, by Jyoti Madhusoodanan in Nature and published in Scientific American says that poor African-American children who come from homes with great environmental stress have genes with shorter telomeres, which are an biomarkers of chronic stress. This result is truly not surprising but it is worth noting for other reasons noted below.

Madhusoodanan writes:
When researchers examined the DNA of 40 boys from major US cities at age 9, they found that the telomeres of children from harsh home environments were 19% shorter than those of children from advantaged backgrounds. The length of telomeres is often considered to be a biomarker of chronic stress.
The study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, brings researchers closer to understanding how social conditions in childhood can influence long-term health, says Elissa Epel, a health psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who was not involved in the research.
Participants’ DNA samples and socio-economic data were collected as part of the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, an effort funded by the National Institutes of Health to track nearly 5,000 children, the majority of whom were born to unmarried parents in large US cities in 1998–2000. Children's environments were rated on the basis of their mother's level of education; the ratio of a family’s income to needs; harsh parenting; and whether family structure was stable, says lead author Daniel Notterman, a molecular biologist at Pennsylvania State University in Hershey.
The telomeres of boys whose mothers had a high-school diploma were 32% longer compared with those of boys whose mothers had not finished high school. Children who came from stable families had telomeres that were 40% longer than those of children who had experienced many changes in family structure, such as a parent with multiple partners.
Science in this case is confirming what social workers, psychologists and other front-line health-care professionals have known for decades, that poverty and instability causes stress that greatly affects health, and that years of grinding poverty on young children do have long-term consequences. There have been enough studies, both scientific and social, that confirm this, and yet very little has been done to help poorer families in the United States. Pushing such families to the margins, such as denying them financial benefits or by locking up young black men fathers (or mothers) in prisons for minor drug offenses, will not improve the health of children; it will ensure that this destructive cycle continues. This says much more than this study, as helpful as it is.

You can read more at [SciAmer]