Childhood Poverty Leads to Health Problems, Lower Life Expectancy in Adulthood

New research performed at Cornell University has finally identified a reason as to why experiencing poverty as a child leads to poor health and a decreased life expectancy as an adult regardless of socio-economic status. The researchers attribute it to weakened and overextended stress responders that lead to other health problems, especially in the adult years.

While many researchers in the past have shown that a person’s exposure to poverty in childhood decreases a person’s life expectancy rate, this is the first study that has been performed that has actually attributed a cause. It is also the first prolonged study to have been conducted on 13-year olds living in poverty.

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The researchers confirmed that the longer 13-year olds lived in poverty the more health problems they developed in adulthood. Poverty takes a toll on their bodies that makes it more challenging for their bodies to handle the impacts of the environment as they grow older.

The researchers found that a key element is the fact that the longer children live in poverty the more their stress regulatory capabilities, which are a part of the cardiovascular system, become muted and less responsive. The diminished activity in their stress regulatory abilities compromises their ability to respond to stressors like noise, inadequate housing, and family problems, but that in return causes more strain on their organs and tissues than other children.

The researchers were able to assess how the neuroendocrine and cardiovascular stress regulatory systems were doing by measuring levels of cortisol the children produced and maintained overnight. They also measured how the children’s blood pressure rises and recovers when induced by stressors. They induced the children with stressors by asking them to solve mental math problems unexpectedly. The researchers tested 217 low-income and middle-income Caucasian children at the age of 9 in upstate New York. They latter tested the children a second time once they had reached the age of 13. The scientists saw that the children who were experiencing socio-economic difficulties also showed decreases in their ability to respond to stressors. The researchers assessed the children’s socio-economic risks by looking at the children’s exposure to crowding, noise, housing conditions, reports of family problems, exposure to violence, and separation from family.

The researchers conclude that poverty induces ill-health in children that carries over to diminished health and long-term health problems as adults. They further conclude that ignoring poverty costs society money because it causes premature illness and death.

Nicola Pytell, “Why poor kids may make sicker adults,” Cornell University.