A new study by researchers at the University of Georgia finds that young teenagers from poor communities who are good students, in good mental health, and well-adjusted socially end up with high levels of stress hormones, high blood pressure, and a higher body mass index by age 19. In turn, that compromises their immune systems and puts them at greater risk for developing conditions such as obesity, cancer, hypertension, stroke, and cardiovascular disease at a young age.
“Exposure to stress over time gets under the skin of children and adolescents, which makes them more vulnerable to disease later in life,” said lead researcher Gene Brody.
Poverty and social exclusion are already major risk factors for a host of medical problems, including mental health disorders, diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. But the new research suggests that the stress of escaping poverty’s shackles causes long-term damage to young Americans’ health.
“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. 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,” said Brody.
Brody recommends that young Americans address this issue by getting preventative health screenings, noting that “it is very important for them to be monitored and have yearly checkups” to find out if they are at risk for a chronic disease.
Unfortunately, poor and isolated populations tend not to have access to quality health care. Poor communities have significantly lower numbers of hospitals that service them, and the financial burden of medical care prices many of the poor out of the system entirely.
One way that state officials can ease these disparities is by expanding Medicaid under Obamacare. The health law also mandates that preventative services be provided for free, and expands funding for community health centers in an effort to bridge the coverage gap between the rich and the poor.
But many Republican governors have been reticent to take part in the Medicaid expansion, meaning secluded and poor populations in their states won’t have the resources to manage chronic illnesses — even if they receive free screenings through a local clinic. Texas legislators voted to deny health coverage for 1.5 million low-income residents this past week, even though some low-income Texan families are so desperate for medical care that they’ve resorted to crossing the border into Mexico for services and sharing their insulin.
This stubborn GOP opposition to Medicaid expansion is expected to widen existing health disparities, since states refusing to expand Medicaid have far more poor and uninsured residents and significantly worse health outcomes than pro-expansion states.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in a piece for The Atlantic, these disparities will disproportionately affect minority communities, many of which tend to have low incomes. “The black uninsured of Mississippi — a majority of the uninsured of the state — are not going to be evenly distributed among the various networks of the state. They are going to be concentrated in one particular network,” wrote Coates to illustrate his point.
In turn, that will perpetuate the vicious cycle of poverty, poor health care, lost productivity, and unaffordable medical costs for racial and ethnic minorities. A study by the National Urban League Policy estimates that U.S. health care disparities have contributed to $59.9 billion in excess spending. And poor, private citizens are the ones who are forced to make up the difference, paying over 27 percent of those costs out of their own pockets — more than Medicare and Medicaid combined.
And as the UGA study highlights, young Americans trying to claw their way out from the bottom could very well end up with a costly, chronic medical condition for their efforts. The road out of poverty is difficult enough as is — sadly, Americans who make the trek must pay a hefty toll.