Status and Stress

Status and Stress

The New York Times

Moises Velasquez-Manoff

Although professionals may bemoan their long work hours and high-pressure careers, really, there’s stress, and then there’s Stress with a capital “S.” The former can be considered a manageable if unpleasant part of life; in the right amount, it may even strengthen one’s mettle. The latter kills.

What’s the difference? Scientists have settled on an oddly subjective explanation: the more helpless one feels when facing a given stressor, they argue, the more toxic that stressor’s effects.

That sense of control tends to decline as one descends the socioeconomic ladder, with potentially grave consequences. Those on the bottom are more than three times as likely to die prematurely as those at the top. They’re also more likely to suffer from depression, heart disease and diabetes. Perhaps most devastating, the stress of poverty early in life can have consequences that last into adulthood.

Even those who later ascend economically may show persistent effects of early-life hardship. Scientists find them more prone to illness than those who were never poor. Becoming more affluent may lower the risk of disease by lessening the sense of helplessness and allowing greater access to healthful resources like exercise, more nutritious foods and greater social support; people are not absolutely condemned by their upbringing. But the effects of early-life stress also seem to linger, unfavorably molding our nervous systems and possibly even accelerating the rate at which we age…

…“Early-life stress and the scar tissue that it leaves, with every passing bit of aging, gets harder and harder to reverse,” says Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist at Stanford. “You’re never out of luck in terms of interventions, but the longer you wait, the more work you’ve got on your hands.”

This research has cast new light on racial differences in longevity. In the United States, whites live longer on average by about five years than African-Americans. But a 2012 study by a Princeton researcher calculated that socioeconomic and demographic factors, not genetics, accounted for 70 to 80 percent of that difference. The single greatest contributor was income, which explained more than half the disparity. Other studies, meanwhile, suggest that the subjective experience of racism by African-Americans — a major stressor — appears to have effects on health. Reports of discrimination correlate with visceral fat accumulation in women, which increases the risk of metabolic syndrome (and thus the risk of heart disease and diabetes). In men, they correlate with high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

Race aside, Bruce McEwen, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University in New York, describes these relationships as one way that “poverty gets under the skin.” He and others talk about the “biological embedding” of social status. Your parents’ social standing and your stress level during early life change how your brain and body work, affecting your vulnerability to degenerative disease decades later. They may even alter your vulnerability to infection. In one study, scientists at Carnegie Mellon exposed volunteers to a common cold virus. Those who’d grown up poorer (measured by parental homeownership) not only resisted the virus less effectively, but also suffered more severe cold symptoms…

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