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Intergenerational Perspectives on Health Disparities

Supportive Parenting Protects Developing Brains from Poverty 

Robin Nusslock
IPR psychologist Robin Nusslock uses neuroscientific methods to investigate brain systems underlying human thought and emotion, and the involvement of these systems in mental and physical health.

In the United States, 40 percent of children either live in poverty or close to the poverty line. According to a recent study by IPR health psychologists Edith Chen and Greg Miller and psychologist Robin Nusslock, supportive parents can help protect an adolescent’s brain from the negative consequences of poverty. The researchers looked at 119 African Americans in the rural South at three stages of their adolescence—ages 11 to 13, 16 to 18, and finally at age 25—and measured the amount of support, involvement, and levels of unresolved conflict their parents displayed. They then used MRI to measure the strength of neural networks in the brain that support higher order thinking, goal-directed behaviors, and managing one’s emotions. They found that growing up in poverty was associated with weaker connections in these neural networks. However, this was only observed for young adults who received low levels of supportive parenting and not for those who received high levels of such parenting. The findings add to a growing body of literature suggesting that supportive parenting can help protect children from the negative effects of poverty on both mental and physical health. Chen is the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Psychology, and Miller is the Louis W. Menk Professor of Psychology.

Poverty Leaves a Mark on Our Genes 

Previous research has shown that socioeconomic status (SES) is a powerful determinant of human health and disease, and social inequality is a ubiquitous stressor for human populations globally. Lower SES is associated with physiological processes that contribute to the development of disease, including chronic inflammation, insulin resistance, and cortisol dysregulation. In the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, IPR anthropologists Thomas McDade and Christopher Kuzawa, with Miller and other colleagues, found evidence that poverty can become embedded across wide swaths of the genome. They discovered that lower socioeconomic status is associated with levels of DNA methylation (DNAm)—a key epigenetic mark that has the potential to shape gene expression—at more than 2,500 sites, across more than 1,500 genes. This finding means that experiences over the course of development become embodied in the genome, to literally shape its structure and function. Follow-up studies will be needed to determine the health consequences of differential methylation at the sites the researchers identified, but many of the genes are associated with processes related to immune responses to infection, skeletal development, and development of the nervous system. McDade is the Carlos Montezuma Professor of Anthropology.

The Consequences of Foster Care Versus Institutional Care in Early Childhood on Adolescent Cardiometabolic and Immune Markers 

It’s well-documented that children raised in institutional care are at risk for impediment to their cognitive, social, and emotional functioning. In a new study in Psychosomatic Medicine, McDade with a group of researchers examine for the first time what effect institutional upbringing, considered a form of adversity, might have on children’s risk for chronic diseases in adulthood. The researchers hypothesize that adolescents who have been raised since early infancy in institutions would show elevated levels of biomarkers for cardiovascular and immune-related diseases compared to those raised in excellent foster families or in biological families. They examined blood samples from more than 100 adolescents from three groups, one allocated to foster care, one to institutional care, and a control group of children raised in their biological families, all in Romania. They find, contrary to their hypothesis, that children primarily raised in institutions did not show any markers of elevated risk for cardiometabolic or immune disease compared to their peers raised in foster homes. Their findings raise questions about how adverse childhood experiences manifest differently across the span of a child’s development.

Female Disadvantage in Under-Five Mortality in India

IPR sociologist Julia Behrman presents her research on the causes and consequences of family change around the globe. 

In Indian family life infant sons are preferred to daughters, leading to well-documented negative health consequences for the latter. In a recent working paper, IPR sociologist Julia Behrman and her co-author explore the mortality risks that young girls in India face due to this discrimination by examining a sample of mixed-sex twins and their health outcomes. By looking at this sample, they explore how a child’s sex is linked to their risk of mortality under the age of five. Behrman makes a key distinction between explicit and implicit discrimination—the former being the overtly unequal distribution of resources between male and female children, and the latter being the structural processes that lead to girls being born into larger and poorer families. She finds evidence that explicit discrimination has declined in recent years despite an enduring female mortality disadvantage. Behrman says this highlights the need for further research on the forms implicit discrimination may take, which could lead to more effective policy responses to improve girls' health.

How Culture and Identity Affect Risk-Taking Behavior 

Different cultures have different attitudes about risk. In a study for Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, developmental psychologist and IPR associate Yang Qu and his co-authors try to understand how college students’ cultural groups and individual orientation play a role in the neural basis of risk-taking behavior. To do so, they examined a group of nearly 50 students, half from the United States and half from China but studying in the United States, cultures that are respectively more and less inclined toward “risky exploration.” The researchers surveyed the students using the Singelis self-construal scale, measuring their agreement with statements like “I do my own thing, regardless of what others think.” Participants also underwent an MRI while completing a standard psychological test that measures risk-taking. They find that Chinese subjects who identified more strongly with independent orientation showed more activity in their brain’s cognitive control system and affective system, both of which are associated with higher levels of risk-taking. This association varied across two cultural groups, such that self-construals were not related to neural activity and risk-taking behavior in American participants. Their findings reveal that to better understand how individuals acculturate to a new environment, more research is needed on the intersection between group membership and individual orientation, topics that have traditionally been explored independently of each other.

Personality Predicts Holiday Spending 

Personality traits may influence consumers’ buying behavior during the hectic holiday season. In this article, psychologist and IPR associate Daniel Mroczek and his colleagues examine correlations between the “Big Five” personality traits—openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism—and holiday spending behavior. They hypothesize that holiday spending may be a function of socially relevant traits. For example,  more extraverted people spend more during the holiday season. Data were collected by sending a voluntary survey to the users of a UK-based money management application and gathering purchasing data from the 1,875 respondents in November and December. After accounting for financial and demographic differences, the researchers find participants with more nervous, stress-reactive personalities (higher neuroticism), as well as those who were more artistic and imaginative (higher openness), spent less money during the holiday season. The research finds some evidence of a relationship between personality traits and amount of holiday spending, and it adds to our understanding of how certain personality traits may encourage or inhibit consumption. But more work on the topic remains to be done.