Do low-income students living below the national poverty level face face greater biological challenges in adulthood due to their stressful environments while growing up? A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Georgia found that poverty and the stressful environments associated with low-income families can have lasting effects well into adulthood regardless of a child’s social resiliency. The results of the study were published May 30 in the journal Psychological Science.
While low-income students with exceptional social resiliency appear to thrive in the face of poverty, “exposure to stress over time gets under the skin of children and adolescents, which makes them more vulnerable to disease later in life,” said Gene Brody, founder and director of the UGA Center for Family Research. During the study, researchers evaluated the overall poverty-related risks experienced annually by 489 African-American children ages 11-13 from working poor families in south Georgia. Researchers also gathered teacher-reported academic, emotional and social competency data for the sample pool.
At age 19, researchers returned to measure the Allostatic load (a measure of stress hormones, blood pressure and body mass index) of their sample pool and the results were unnerving. The low-income students, who at ages 11-13 were deemed by teachers as performing well academically, emotionally and socially, were found to have high Allostatic loads.
“The children who are doing good at school, playing well with friends, have high self-esteem and don’t have behavior problems are often thought of as beating the odds or being resilient in the face of adversity,” said Brody. “We hypothesized maybe at one level they are resilient, but looking at their biology and asking what is the cost, we find a physiologic toll to attaining behavior resilience.”
Researchers note that as the body contends with stressful situations via neural mechanisms including the release of stress hormones, the initial effect can be protective, while the lasting effects may be detrimental to long-term well-being.
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