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.