Exploring the connection between economic status and physical health in teenagers

July 16, 2004

It's well known that low socioeconomic status (SES) predicts greater health problems in childhood across a variety of illnesses and risk factors for disease.

To better understand the psychological and social reasons for this connection, we recruited 100 high school students and interviewed them about their life experiences. We also measured their blood pressure and heart rate under normal circumstances and then when exposed to a stressful situation. We also interviewed their parents about the family's socioeconomic level. We found that adolescents who came from lower SES families showed higher blood pressure and heart rate in response to a lab stress task than those who came from families with higher SES levels.

Adolescents from lower SES families were also more likely to interpret ambiguous social interactions in a negative way, for example, construing that an attentive saleswoman was suspicious of them. Such an interpretation correlated with low-SES adolescents showing heightened biological responses during the interactions.

We also found that general life experiences, such as low SES and a lack of positive life events, explained the tendency of these teens to view such interactions in a negative way. Specific types of life experiences (such as witnessing acts of violence) had no effect.

This research helps us better understand what life experiences are like for low SES adolescents, and how these life experiences may affect their physical health. Parents and teachers who are able to provide children with positive life experiences and encourage children to consider alternative interpretations in ambiguous situations may help promote better physical health for these children in the long run.
Summarized from Child Development, Vol. 75, Issue 4, Socioeconomic Status and Health in Adolescents: The Role of Stress Interpretations by E. Chen, University of British Columbia; D.A. Langer, University of California, Los Angeles; Y.E. Raphaelson, Johns Hopkins University; and K.A. Matthews, University of Pittsburgh. Copyright 2004 The Society for Research in Child Development, Inc. All rights reserved.

*Please contact Karen Melnyk at SRCD (see above) for author availability and contact information.

Society for Research in Child Development

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