Faculty Spotlight

Edith Chen

Connecting Social Environments to Health Disparities

A pivotal professional moment that shaped IPR health psychologist Edith Chen’s career came when she received an opportunity to do a postdoctoral fellowship with health pioneer Karen Matthews at the University of Pittsburgh.

“I wanted to do work that could make a difference in young people's lives,” Chen recalled, “by addressing research questions that also represent pressing problems in our society today; for example, trying to understand why health disparities exist and what could possibly help to make things better.”

Working with Matthews, who was one of the first social psychologists to clinically study the “mind-body” connection to health, led Chen down a new path—from work in graduate school examining how pain and anxiety affect children undergoing serious medical procedures to more broadly understanding the factors that contribute to health disparities in children.

edith chen
Edith Chen

Today, Chen with IPR health psychologist Greg Miller, is co-director of the Foundations of Health Research Center, a laboratory housed at Northwestern. Chen explained they founded it to examine “how social environments get under the skin and how they do that differentially in different populations across our society.” In doing so, they also seek to “identify protective factors that can buffer those who come from low-income families from poor health over a lifetime.”

Family Asthma Study

One of the center’s flagship projects is the Family Asthma Study, led by Chen. The R01 study, which receives support from the National Institutes of Health, seeks to explain why children and teens from low-socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds have worse asthma outcomes than their counterparts with higher-SES.

“We started the study in order to better understand childhood health disparities by using the example of the most common chronic illness in childhood,” she said.

Currently in its data-collection phase, the study looks at multiple layers of factors—diving from neighborhood and family environments down into an individual’s psychology and her organs, cells, and genes—in order to understand the impact different social factors can have on the biological pathways that lead to worse clinical asthma in youth.

Mentoring and Health

Another line of her research involves testing whether mentors can improve cardiovascular risk profiles among mentees from low-SES backgrounds and if mentoring holds positive health effects for the mentors themselves.

A 2013 JAMA Pediatrics article by Chen and colleagues showed lower levels of cardiovascular risk markers, including cholesterol and body mass index, in adolescents who were randomly assigned to volunteer with elementary school children compared to adolescents who were assigned to a control group.

Chen is encouraged by “the idea of a two-way street of benefits. Mentees potentially benefit by having a stable, positive role model in their lives, and mentors benefit from engaging in helping behaviors that turn out to benefit their own health.”

Skin Deep Resilience

In addition, Chen is part of a new line of research testing whether youth from low-SES households pay a “physiological cost of success.” Despite growing up in poor areas with curtailed opportunities, a number of children manage to perform quite well, advancing in school and in life by traditional measures of success from good grades to well-paying jobs. But do such traits translate to better health as well?

“We initially reasoned that, if disadvantaged children were succeeding academically and emotionally, they might also be protected from health problems that were more common in lower-income youth,” she said. “As it turned out, the exact opposite was true.”

In a 2013 study published in Psychological Science, Chen and colleagues looked at resilience in a group of African American youth in the rural South. They found that the group of kids who came from low SES families but were positively evaluated by teachers on competence between ages 11 and 13, were less likely to suffer from depression or have adjustment problems at 19. At the same time, however, these youth had much higher markers of physiological stress.

It appears that in difficult environments, Chen said, the energy spent to excel academically and to thrive socially and emotionally takes a serious physiological toll.

Chen and colleagues are planning a study on first generation college students to further examine skin-deep resilience, and as well are thinking about the types of interventions that could help reduce the adverse physiological profiles that accompany this phenomenon.

Edith Chen is professor of psychology and an IPR fellow. To learn more about her research, visit her IPR faculty page.