Host of evidence shows lifelong effect of childhood poverty

The persistent effects of early life hardship, why it is not good for the children and how we all benefit from healthier communities at The New York Times

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.

…scientists have found links, independent of current income, between early-life poverty and a higher risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and arthritis in adulthood.

“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….

Some now argue that addressing health disparities and their causes is not just a moral imperative, but an economic one. It will save money in the long run. The University of Chicago economist James Heckman estimates that investing in poor children yields a yearly return of 7 to 10 percent thereafter to society.

The article is part of The Great Divide series at the NYT’s Opinionator.

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