Chronic family turmoil and other problems cause physical changes

April 20, 2007

Adolescents who are chronically exposed to family turmoil, violence, noise, poor housing or other chronic risk factors show more stress-induced physiological strain on their organs and tissues than other young people.

However, when they have responsive, supportive mothers, they do not experience these negative physiological changes, reports a new study from Cornell.

But the research group also found that the cardiovascular systems of youths who are exposed to chronic and multiple risk factors are compromised, regardless of their mothers' responsiveness.

The study, led by environmental and developmental psychologist Gary Evans, is published in the March issue of Developmental Psychology. It is the first study to look at how maternal responsiveness may protect against cumulative risk as well as the first, according to the researchers, to look at cardiovascular recovery from stress in children or youths.

Evans said that the findings suggest that the physiological toll of coping with multiple risk factors is significantly greater than with that of coping with a single event, even if that event was rather severe. "Moreover the burden appears to register in physiological systems that help us regulate our responses to stress," said Evans, the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology and professor of human development and of design and environmental analysis in Cornell's College of Human Ecology.

To study stress-induced physiological changes in young teens, the researchers -- including three students who were undergraduates at the time and a graduate student -- used an index called allostatic load. This is a measure of stress-induced changes in neuroendocrine hormonal systems, cardiovascular responses and metabolism that indicate the severity of wear and tear that cumulative strain puts on organs and tissues.

"Allostatic load may very well turn out to be the primary mechanism of how risk, stress and other sources of environmental demands get under the skin and into the body," said Evans.

In some studies, he noted, high allostatic loads are correlated with a greater incidence of physical, mental and cognitive disorders. The new data, Evans said, may therefore explain, at least in part, "why income and racial inequalities are so pervasive and persistent in our society. Low-income kids and especially low-income kids who are nonwhite bear a disproportionate burden of cumulative risk exposure."

The researchers also found that when stressed by a mental arithmetic problem, the cardiovascular systems of adolescents who had been exposed to chronic risk factors responded less actively to the stressor and were slower to physiologically recover.

The results are based on surveys, blood pressure measurements and urine samples from 207 seventh- and eighth-grade children in rural upstate New York who had participated in a first wave of the study while they were in elementary school.

"We oversampled low-income children given our interest in risk and poverty," said Evans. He said they chose a rural, white community "given that the majority of children in America who are poor are white and that rural poverty constitutes greater and more persistent material deprivation than urban poverty."

Source: Cornell University News Service

Explore further: A century of learning about the physiological demands of Antarctica

Related Stories

A century of learning about the physiological demands of Antarctica

June 12, 2012
In late 1911, British Naval Captain Robert F. Scott led a team of five Englishmen on their quest to be the first to reach the South Pole. Upon arrival they learned they had been preceded by a Norwegian team, led by Roald ...

For kids, poverty means psychological deficits as adults

December 22, 2016
A large and growing body of research shows that poor kids grow up to have a host of physical problems as adults.

One injection stops type 2 diabetes in its tracks in mice without side effects

July 16, 2014
In mice with diet-induced diabetes—the equivalent of type 2 diabetes in humans—a single injection of the protein FGF1 is enough to restore blood sugar levels to a healthy range for more than two days. The discovery by ...

New discovery may lead to safer treatments for asthma, allergies and arthritis

December 19, 2011
Scientists have discovered a missing link between the body's biological clock and sugar metabolism system, a finding that may help avoid the serious side effects of drugs used for treating asthma, allergies and arthritis.

When 'energy' drinks actually contained radioactive energy

November 3, 2016
Modern life have you feeling frazzled? Flagging a bit as you rush through your day? Maybe you're one of the millions of consumers who lean on energy drinks to put a little extra pep in your step.

Teens' chronic stress is linked to time in poverty

August 10, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- Childhood adversity is linked to chronic stress in adolescence, setting the stage for a host of physical and mental health problems, finds a new Cornell study published online in July in Psychological ...

Recommended for you

Study suggests psychedelic drugs could reduce criminal behavior

October 18, 2017
Classic psychedelics such as psilocybin (often called magic mushrooms), LSD and mescaline (found in peyote) are associated with a decreased likelihood of antisocial criminal behavior, according to new research from investigators ...

Taking probiotics may reduce postnatal depression

October 18, 2017
Researchers from the University of Auckland and Otago have found evidence that a probiotic given in pregnancy can help prevent or treat symptoms of postnatal depression and anxiety.

Before assigning responsibility, our minds simulate alternative outcomes, study shows

October 17, 2017
How do people assign a cause to events they witness? Some philosophers have suggested that people determine responsibility for a particular outcome by imagining what would have happened if a suspected cause had not intervened.

For older adults, volunteering could improve brain function

October 17, 2017
Older adults worried about losing their cognitive functions could consider volunteering as a potential boost, according to a University of Missouri researcher. While volunteering and its associations with physical health ...

Magic mushrooms may 'reset' the brains of depressed patients

October 13, 2017
Patients taking psilocybin to treat depression show reduced symptoms weeks after treatment following a 'reset' of their brain activity.

Living near a forest keeps your amygdala healthier

October 13, 2017
A study conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development has investigated the relationship between the availability of nature near city dwellers' homes and their brain health. Its findings are relevant for urban ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.