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08
May
2015

Poor People Age Faster Than Rich Ones

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By Ron Simms Jr., Digital Media Specialist

The urban poor in the United States experience accelerated aging at the cellular level due to chronic stress linked to both income level and racial identity.

This is according to findings published by a group of prominent biologists and social researchers, including Stanford University professor and lead author, Dr. Arline Geronimus.

Researchers analyzed telomeres of poor and lower-middle-class Black, white, and Mexican residents of Detroit. Telomeres are tiny caps at the end of DNA strands that protect cells from premature aging. They naturally shorten as people are, but various types of intense chronic stress are thought to cause telomeres to shorten. Short telomeres are associated with numerous ailments, including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

The shorter your telomeres, the greater your chance of dying.

The new study found that low-income residents of Detroit, no matter their race, have significantly shorter telomeres than average. However, within this group, telomere length was varied.

Lower-middle-class whites had the longest telomere length, while poor whites had the shortest. Blacks had the same telomere length no matter their income level. Poor Mexicans had longer telomeres than their lower-middle-income counterparts.

Geronimus said these findings demonstrated the limitations of standard measures — like race, income, and education level — typically used to examine health disparities. “We’ve relied on them too much of be the signifiers of everything that varies in the life experiences of difference racial or ethnic groups in different geographic locations and circumstances,” she said.

Why did poor Mexicans have longer telomeres than lower-middle-income ones? Because they experienced less stress than their higher earning peers. Most poor Mexicans are first generation citizens who live in close-knit ethnic enclaves. Non-poor Mexicans tend to be born in the U.S. and are more exposed to the darker elements of American society.

“If they’re immigrants, then they come with a different cultural background and upbringing that didn’t stress that as Mexicans they were somehow ‘other’ or ‘lesser’ than other Americans,” said Geronimus. “They come with a set of support systems and with a cultural orientation that doesn’t undermine their sense of self-worth. They then often live in these ethnic enclaves, many of them don’t speak anything other than Spanish, and so they’re not interacting with Americans who view them as ‘other’ or who treat them badly. It’s not that they’re immune to that treatment but they’re not as sensitive to it and they also just don’t experience it as often.”

On the other hand, non-poor Mexicans are more likely to be “exposed to some of the negative views of Mexicans held by some Americans, the conflation of anyone of Mexican origin as being an immigrant or possibly an undocumented immigrant, or even more neutral assumptions like ‘they must speak Spanish,’ or ‘they don’t understand English.'” Ironically, by avoiding the stress of poverty, these lower-middle-class Mexicans instead face the stress of racism and discrimination.

That explains the difference in telomere length between Mexican residents, but what about between Blacks and whites? Why did income level have no effect on the telomere length of Black Detroit residents, while the telomere length between poor whites and non-poor whites was vastly different?

Detroit is highly segregated, and Blacks of all income levels tend to live in the same neighborhoods. They also tend to be members of the same families and social networks, practice reciprocal obligations, or have similar experiences shifting between low and moderate incomes. Blacks also make up the majority of Detroit’s population. They may experience Detroit more positively than their white and Mexican counterparts, and therefore feel less stressed.

In contrast, regarding white Detroit residents, the researchers wrote, “Perhaps with the exodus of most whites and many jobs from Detroit, the shrinking benefits of labor union membership and public pensions, and the overall reduction in taxation-based city services, the poor whites who remain are particularly adversely affected by the social and ecological consequences of austerity urbanism. Lacking the financial resources, social networks, and identity affirmation of the past, remaining Detroit whites may have less to protect them from the health effects of poverty, stigma, anxiety, or hopelessness in this setting.”

Geronimus summarized, “I think a lot of people just don’t understand how bad it is for some Americans. It’s disproportionately people of color given our history of residential segregation and racism, but it’s also anyone who gets caught. It’s like the dolphins who get caught in the fishing nets, it’s anyone who gets caught there. If anything, some of our evidence suggests that whether it’s the poor Mexican immigrant or the African-Americans who have been discriminated against and dealt with hardship for generation after generation, they’ve developed systems to cope somewhat that perhaps white Detroiters haven’t. So there’s great strength in these populations. But it’s not enough to solve these problems without the help of policymakers and more emphatic fellow citizens.”

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