Professor of Psychology
Edith Chen’s research seeks to understand why poverty is associated with poor physical health outcomes in children, with a focus on the psychological and biological mechanisms that explain these relationships. She is also interested in questions of resilience—that is, why some children who come from adversity manage to thrive and maintain good profiles of health.
For her research, Chen has received honors including the American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution to Health Psychology, the Young Investigator Award from the Society of Behavioral Medicine, and the Donald K. Routh Early Career Award from the Society of Pediatric Psychology.
Prior to coming to Northwestern, Chen was the Canada Research Chair in Health and Society at the University of British Columbia, and she has also been a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.
Foundations of Health Research Center. Low socioeconomic status (SES) has consistently been linked to poor physical health outcomes for both children and adults—they are two times more likely to be hospitalized, 1.8 times more likely to be in poor health, and 1.5 times more likely to die than their higher- SES peers. These are not just an effect of poverty: Across the SES spectrum as SES declines, health outcomes worsen. A team led by Edith Chen and Greg Miller is investigating the relationship between SES and health effects. To this end, Chen and Miller have established the Foundations of Health Research Center at Northwestern, to explore the relationship between social factors and physical health across the life span in children and adults. The center conducts numerous studies that link the social world to disease outcomes, several of which are described below.
Socioeconomic Status and Asthma. This project seeks to identify multilevel contributors to asthma disparities in youth. Specifically, Chen and her colleagues seek to explain why youth with low socioeconomic status (SES) experience worse asthma outcomes through identifying both social and physical environment factors at the neighborhood and family levels, as well as individual psychological factors that contribute to asthma morbidity. Simultaneously, the researchers are attempting to link these factors to multiple levels biologically—at the organ, cellular, and genomic levels—to create plausible explanations of how broader contextual factors can alter biological pathways that lead to worse cases of clinical asthma in youth.
Resilience in Youth. Confronting adversity typically leads to worse health outcomes, so how is it that some youth who confront adverse events such as growing up in low-SES circumstances remain in good health? Chen and her colleagues are interested in understanding this subgroup of youth by characterizing the youths’ psychosocial environments and qualities that could contribute to the promotion of long-term resilience in their physical health. In addition Chen and her colleagues have documented that there might be some limits to resilience. For some youth exposed to adversity, positive academic and behavioral profiles are noted, but at the same time these youth also show risky physiological profiles, a phenomenon called “skin-deep resilience.” Chen and her colleagues are developing studies to better understand the factors that contribute to skin-deep resilience.
Mentoring and Health. At-risk youth benefit from having mentors, but these effects have largely been studied in the academic and behavioral domains. Chen and her team are interested in expanding this literature to physical health and testing whether mentors can improve cardiovascular risk profiles among low-SES mentees. In addition, helping others has been found to have benefits for physical health as well. The researchers are developing studies to test whether serving as a mentor can have benefits for cardiovascular profiles among low-SES youth mentors.
Journal Articles and Book Chapters
Chen, E., K. McLean, and G. Miller. 2015. Shift-and-persist strategies: Associations with socioeconomic status and the regulation of inflammation among adolescents and their parents. Psychosomatic Medicine 77 371–82.
Miller, G., G. Brody, T. Yu, and E. Chen. 2014. Mitigating the effects of childhood disadvantage: Family-oriented intervention reduces inflammation in low-SES African American youth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111(31):11287–92.
Schreier, H., L. Roy, L. Frimer, and E. Chen. 2014. Family chaos and adolescent inflammatory profiles: The moderating role of socioeconomic status. Psychosomatic Medicine 76(6): 460–67.
Schreier, H., and E. Chen. 2013. Socioeconomic status and the health of youth: A multi-level multi-domain approach to conceptualizing pathways. Psychological Bulletin 139(3): 606–54.
Schreier, H., K. Schonert-Reichl, and E. Chen. 2013. Effect of volunteering on risk for cardiovascular disease in adolescents: A randomized control trial. JAMA Pediatrics 167(4): 327–32.
Chen, E., W. Lee, L. Cavey, and A. Ho. 2013. Role models and the psychological characteristics that buffer low socioeconomic status youth from cardiovascular risk. Child Development 84(4): 1241–52.
Brody, G., T. Yu, E. Chen, G. Miller, S. Kogan, and S. Beach. 2013. Is resilience only skin deep? Rural African Americans’ socioeconomic status-related risk and competence in preadolescence and psychological adjustment and allostatic load at age 19. Psychological Science 24(6): 1285–93.
Chen, E., and G. Miller. 2012. "Shift-and-persist” strategies: Why being low in socioeconomic status isn’t always bad for health. Perspectives on Psychological Science 7(2): 135–58.
Chen, E., and G. E. Miller, M. Lachman, T. Gruenewald, and T. Seeman. 2012. Protective factors for adults from low childhood socioeconomic circumstances: The benefits of shift-and-persist for allostatic load. Psychosomatic Medicine 74(2): 178–86.
Chen, E. 2012. Protective factors for health among low socioeconomic status individuals. Current Directions in Psychological Science 21(3): 189–93.
Chen, E., R. Strunk, A. Trethewey, H. Schreier, N. Maharaj, and G. Miller. 2011. Resilience in low socioeconomic status children with asthma: Adaptations to stress. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 128(5): 970–76.
Chen, E., G. E. Miller, M. Kobor, and S. Cole. 2011. Maternal warmth buffers the effects of low early life socioeconomic status on pro-inflammatory signaling in adulthood. Molecular Psychiatry 16(7): 729–37.
Miller, G. E., E. Chen, and K. Parker. 2011. Psychological stress in childhood and susceptibility to the chronic diseases of aging: Moving towards a model of behavioral and biological mechanisms. Psychological Bulletin 137(6):959–97.
Chen, E., S. Cohen, and G. E. Miller. 2010. How low socioeconomic status affects 2-year hormonal trajectories in children. Psychological Science 21(1): 31–37.
Miller, G. E., E. Chen, A. Fok, H. Walker, A. Lim, E. Nicholls, S. Cole, and M. Kobor. 2009. Low early-life social class leaves a biological residue manifested by decreased glucocorticoid and increased proinflammatory signaling. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106(34): 14716–21.
Chen, E., R. Strunk, L. Bacharier, M. Chan, and G. E. Miller 2010. Socioeconomic status associated with exhaled nitric oxide responses to acute stress in children with asthma. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity 24(3): 444-50.
Schreier, H. M., and E. Chen. 2010. Longitudinal relationships between family routines and biological profiles among youth with asthma. Health Psychology 29(1): 82-90.
Miller, G. E., E. Chen, and S. Cole. 2009. Health psychology: Developing biologically plausible models linking the social world and physical health. Annual Review of Psychology 60:501–24.