I’ve written before (here and here) how well-documented it is that poorer children tend to have more serious illnesses. For example, although children on Medicaid (a good marker for family income) account for around a quarter of all children, about half of the children in most large PICUs are on Medicaid. Thus poorer children are twice as likely to suffer serious illness or injury.
I’ve never seen any scientific explanations before about why this is so. Certainly it makes sense that the better fed, clothed, and housed a child is, the more healthy overall that child will be. Affluent children also are more likely to have good heath insurance with good access to preventative care, so a chronic condition like asthma or diabetes is more likely to be kept under control.
These explanations, though probably part of the answer, always seemed sort of vague to me — soft data. The scientist in me wanted some biological explanation, some harder data that might explain what is happening. I recently ran across some research that takes a few steps down that path.
Two professors at Cornell recently reported in the journal Psychological Science their findings in poor children on some well-known biological markers of stress. (You can find a summary of their article here.) In their study of thirteen-year-old children, they found much higher biological markers of stress — blood pressure, levels of stress hormones in the body, and the ability of the body to respond to stress. All of these things are known to affect illness.
They also found that poverty early in life tended to establish in children these abnormal responses in a way that they didn’t improve later, even if the child’s economic circumstances improved. So early poverty has life-long effects. You can find a more general discussion of the research and its implications here.
Findings like these reinforce the argument that one of the best ways to improve Americans’ health is to reduce levels of poverty, especially among children.