This blog post is going to cut across a few topics and may seem offensive at first read. But it is clear that your child’s social environment plays a role in long term health.
Any therapist reading this is avidly nodding his or her head in agreement, but there are those who, when given this information, will push back because it bears the heavy weight of parental responsibility in your child’s long term health.
It is already abundantly clear from mounds of research studies that childhood adversity affects long term health. Risk of chronic pain is high. Heart disease rates are higher. Depression rates are higher. Adversity can take the form of malnutrition, emotional abuse or physical abuse. Financial status of the family is not normally considered in this context.
However, socioeconomic status does play a role in a child’s health. Frequently research looks at obesity and diabetes rates as it relates to socioeconomic status. This particular study looks at the issue from a different angle.
I have written about telomeres in previous articles that can be read by clicking here. Basically, they are wicks at the end of our DNA that determine how long a cell is going to live. Longer telomeres are a good thing and are consistent with longevity, while shorter telomeres lead to chronic disease and shorter lives. Despite what some marketing messages tell you about their supplements, I have never come across anything to suggest that we can lengthen our telomeres once they are shortened.
For this reason, preserving telomere length is of the utmost importance and certain aspects of lifestyle have been shown to lead to longer telomeres (positive choices) and shorter telomeres (bad choices). In this study, researchers looked at the telomere length of 40 nine-year old African-American boys; half of the participants were raised in what were considered “very disadvantaged environments,” and the other 20 were raised in what were considered advantaged environments. Here’s what they found:
• Boys in a disadvantaged environment had a 19% shorter telomere lenthgs.
• A doubling of the family income/needs ratio was linked to a 5% increase in telomere length (basically, higher financial stability = longer telomeres).
• If the mother had a high school degree there was a 32% increase in telomere length.
• If the mother had at least some postsecondary education there was a 35% increase in length.
• Most damage to telomere length was when the child was exposed to multiple changes in the family’s structure, leading to a 40% decrease.
• Low scores on the parenting quality index was linked to a 3% decrease.
Here’s where it gets a little more interesting. When the researchers looked through the lens of genes related to serotonin and dopamine pathways (these pathways can basically indicate how “susceptible” the child is to the experiences of life) the relationships above got even stronger. Basically:
• Boys in the most sensitive group have longer telomere lengths when raised in the advantaged environment.
• However, if this same group of sensitive boys is raised in the disadvantaged environment they will, conversely, have the shortest telomere lengths.
This could be fantastic news or incredibly bad news, depending upon the situation. Being a glass-is-half-full type of person, to me this means that, if we make the right choices as a family, even the most “genetically susceptible” kids have the potential for a long and healthy life. Personally, as a parent, the bulk of my choices center around kids. What we eat, the stress I bring into the household, the conversations I have at bedtime (Keegan, now 8, and I always talk about our favorite parts of the day so that he goes to bed with positive thoughts flowing through his mind) and the importance of being active.
Even in the worst of socioeconomic situations, there are always things under our control But, in order for us to manipulate our children’s environment for the best of outcomes, we, as parents, have to accept the WE are in control of many of the factors. Until parents accept this responsibility, the child has little hope to break out and move above in life.