Children who grow up under poorer socioeconomic circumstances face a lifetime’s worth of setbacks compared to their financially stable counterparts. But a new study has found that strengthening the parent-child relationship may help the children stay healthy at least a little more. By intervening, the children showed signs of reduced inflammation.

From birth, children from poorer families face struggles — these problems are usually caused by the mother’s stress. Whereas 6.5 percent of mothers who have had some college education are likely to give birth to a low-weight child, nine percent of mothers with less than a high school education give birth to low-weight children, according to The Future of Children. Later on, the stresses that come along with raising a child in an impoverished community take their toll on the parents through depression, which results in often harsher parenting styles.

In turn, children’s brain development becomes stunted, leading to poorer school performance. As they do worse in school, they become more stressed than they should be, putting them at a future risk of other health problems like heart disease and diabetes. Their risk for these diseases then increases, as they become more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs.

“Many health problems in both childhood and adulthood involve excessive inflammation,” said Gregory Miller, professor of psychology at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, in a press release. “The process has a role in diabetes, heart disease, allergies, and some cancers.”

A study from last year found that people who experienced life under poor socioeconomic conditions in childhood were more likely to catch a cold as an adult. They found this was because their upbringing resulted in the shortening of a protector of chromosomes, called telomeres. These structures, which are also markers of how long we’ll live and which diseases we develop, tend to erode when exposed to inflammation, an immune response to normally harmful stimuli.

Miller and his colleagues from Northwestern University were interested in seeing how strengthening the mother-child bond through intervention benefited the children’s levels of inflammation. So, the researchers gathered information on families living in small, rural areas of Georgia, 90 percent of whom were from low-income backgrounds. Each mother and her 11-year-old child went through a seven-week training program, in which they were taught techniques for improving parenting and communication skills between each other, as well as better ways to help the child deal with stress, racism, and peer pressure regarding sex, drugs, and alcohol.

Eight years later, when the children became 19, the researchers took blood samples to measure inflammation. As they had hoped, participants who underwent the training program showed lower levels of inflammation when compared to the control group, setting them up for a healthier adulthood.  “We also found that the training was most successful in reducing inflammation in families who came from the most disadvantaged neighborhoods,” Miller said. “The study is also novel in its focus on families who are at high risk for health problems relative to other Americans.”

Indeed, blacks and Hispanics are among the poorest in the country. They are also the most at risk for developing heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and cancer — some of the leading causes of death in the U.S. If a strategy like Miller’s can be implemented in a larger capacity, many of these people can be saved.

 

Source: Miller G, Brody G, Yu T, Chen E. Mitigating the Effects of Childhood Disadvantage: A Family-Oriented Psychosocial Intervention Reduces Inflammation in Low-SES African American Youth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2014.