Disadvantaged children perceive more hostility, damaging their hearts

April 30, 2001

A new study shows that children of parents with low education and low-status jobs are more likely to perceive ambiguous situations as threatening and thereby place added stress on their hearts.

These children appear to develop a constant vigilance in order to protect themselves against frequent external threats, often translating into an added strain on their cardiovascular systems, according to the study.

The study by Edith Chen, Ph.D., of Washington University in St. Louis and Karen A. Matthews, Ph.D. of the University of Pittsburgh fills in some new pieces of the puzzle as to why people who grow up in disadvantaged families are more likely to develop heart disease.

"Over time, this physiological burden may lead to health problems such as hypertension and coronary heart disease, both of which have been associated with low [socioeconomic status] in adulthood," say Chen and Matthews.

The study is published in the May issue of the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

Their study, which initially included 201 children, half of whom were African American, found that disadvantaged children in the sample had increased vascular resistance -- a sign of increased load on the cardiovascular system -- during stress-inducing events. These children were also more likely than wealthier peers to interpret ambiguous situations as threatening or hostile and react with anger.

However, when the researchers adjusted the data to control for the children's perceptions of hostile intent, the association between socioeconomic status and heart function decreased significantly, suggesting that the their biased perceptions were, in large part, responsible for the decreased heart function.

They also found that the change in cardiovascular function was more closely associated with the perception of hostile intent than with the actual anger it inspired.

The researchers suggest that although these effects are small, the cumulative impact over a lifetime may be substantial. During follow-up with 149 of the children an average of three years later, they also found that the primary effects seem to grow stronger over time in African-American children.

"If balanced with a recognition that such cognitions are adaptive in threatening environments, interventions that help low-[socioeconomic status] children to minimize such biases in nonthreatening situations may reduce the physiological toll of such cognitions, which may lead to reductions in risk of cardiovascular disease later in life," they suggest.
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The study was funded in part by the National Institutes of Health, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on SES and Health and the Pittsburgh Mind-Body Center.

Annals of Behavioral Medicine is the official peer-reviewed publication of The Society of Behavioral Medicine. For information about the journal, contact Robert Kaplan, PhD, 858-534-6058. For copies of the article, contact the Center for the Advancement of Health at 202-387-2827 or e-mail press@cfah.org.

Posted by the Center for the Advancement of Health http://www.cfah.org. For information about the Center, call Ira Allen, iallen@cfah.org 202-387-2829.

Center for Advancing Health

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