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Stress, Health, and Wealth

Symposium explores effects across the life span


When it comes to your health, stress matters—but so does personal wealth. According to a recent research symposium led by IPR and Northwestern faculty, health and income disparities go hand in hand, with stress playing a large, yet ill-defined, role.

“Socioeconomic status is often the strongest predictor of health outcomes—and often the least understood,” said IPR biological anthropologist Thomas McDade, who directs IPR’s Cells to Society (C2S): The Center on Social Disparities and Health. Income inequality, he continued, is more than and economic issue; it’s also a matter of public health.

The October 23 symposium, co-sponsored by Feinberg’s department of Medical Social Sciences (MSS), IPR’s C2S, and the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, brought together a multidisciplinary cadre of experts to review the links between stress and health, and how they affect people across the life span.

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David Cella collects ideas from participants for future topics of research
and collaboration with Lauren Wakschlag.

“It was an accomplishment not just to pull together such a symposium but also to have begun laying the groundwork for such research to take place in the first place,” noted David Cella, the symposium’s moderator and host.

Cella, professor and founding chair of MSS and an IPR associate, underscored the University’s recognition that for such research to be effective, faculty expertise had to cut across the medical, social, and biological sciences, with the faculty who presented their cross-cutting research at the symposium being examples.

After McDade outlined the challenges of defining and measuring stress and social status, biocultural anthropologist Elizabeth Sweet discussed how stress and stressors are culturally embedded. She examined how cultural status can be defined differently, i.e., Juicy Couture for teens versus publishing in a top journal for professors. Thus, standard indicators of socioeconomic status, she said, do not lead to a complete understanding of its role in health disparities.

“But not all stress is bad,” said IPR psychobiologist Emma Adam, who studies stress and its effects on young adults. Daily stress plays a critical role in helping people to respond to the normal demands of daily life, she said, but it is when that stress becomes chronic that it derails normal stress biology, leading to a higher risk of disease and death.

IPR health psychologists Greg Miller and Edith Chen discussed their efforts to drill down into biological models of stress by fitting together the pieces of multilevel chains of causality. Miller pointed to how stress affects parents of children with cancer. The caregivers (parents) of the sick children were partially resistant to cortisol, with more resulting inflammation leading to a greater risk for health problems. Chen showed that asthmatic children with more acute and chronic family stress had lower cortisol signaling than the nonstressed asthmatics. This left them more prone to allergic inflammation.

Medical social sciences professor and IPR associate Frank Penedo discussed how a psychosocial intervention based on stress management, helped a group of prostate cancer survivors by improving their quality of life, mood, etc., overall. Additionally, the intervention reduced symptom burden by improving stress management.

“In the roundtables following the presentations, it gave participants an opportunity to exchange ideas for future research and collaboration,” said IPR clinical and developmental psychologist and MSS vice chair Lauren Wakschlag, who co-organized the event.