Poverty, speeding up the life course and mental and physical health problems

by Jan 20, 2013Poverty, Stress0 comments

Approx. Reading Time: 3 minutes
This week we learnt that even the government has admitted that the new squeeze on benefits is likely to push another 200,000 children into poverty  (http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2013/jan/17/benefits-squeeze-200000-children-poverty).

Almost every week studies come out showing the impact of poverty and economic stress and hardship on psychological health.  One very interesting study which is about to be published [1] has shown very clearly that children born onto worse economic circumstances are likely to have a different psychological makeup through their lifespans. This research is based on Life History Theory, propounded by many evolutionary psychologists and researchers such as Jay Belsky. The science seems to be showing that if we are born into an environment where stress, anxiety, fear or trauma are likely, then we live a ‘faster life course’, and for example, breed earlier, take more risks and also die younger and have worse health.

Griskevicius’ recent finding showed just this. Those born in poorer circumstances, they found, took more risks and were more impulsive when faced with choices. They also had far more signs of stress  as measured by various biomarkers that predict effects like cellular damage. What such theorists have been arguing for a while now is that it makes a lot of sense to develop more impulsive, risk taking strategies if life is expected to be dangerous or short. If there is an apple on the tree that is not quite ripe, it is best to grab it anyway as it won’t be there tomorrow. This is not the strategy of those born into more affluent circumstances who are able to defer gratification, and often achieve more stable relationships, better jobs and better health, for example.

Many studies are showing similar results. For example a study that came out just before Christmas showed that [2] food insecurity hugely increased the likelihood of every kind of mental health disorder in adolescence, that a one standard deviation increase in food insecurity was associated with a 14% increased odds of past-year mental disorder among adolescents, and with higher elevated stressful or traumatic early life that gives rise to a ‘fast’ life course, with more risk-taking and impulsiveness, is also predictive of extremely worrying character traits such as being psychopathic [3], and indeed a faster life course has been shown to be correlated with increased criminality generally  [4]. A fast life course predisposes to all manner of health problems, such as asthma  [5],  and it seems can even predispose girls to enter puberty earlier  [6].

Society seems to many of us to be speeding up worryingly anyway, and becoming less empathic and increasingly stressful. The increase in poverty and inequality will exacerbate this trend and lead to very worrying health and mental health outcomes that will come home to roost in the decades to come.


[1]        V. Griskevicius, J. M. Ackerman, S. M. Cantú, A. W. Delton, T. E. Robertson, J. A. Simpson, M. E. Thompson, and J. M. Tybur, ‘When the Economy Falters, Do People Spend or Save? Responses to Resource Scarcity Depend on Childhood Environments’, Psychological Science, 2013.

[2]        K. A. McLaughlin, J. G. Green, M. Alegría, E. Jane Costello, M. J. Gruber, N. A. Sampson, and R. C. Kessler, ‘Food Insecurity and Mental Disorders in a National Sample of U.S. Adolescents’, Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, vol. 51, no. 12, pp. 1293–1303, Dec. 2012.

[3]        P. K. Jonason, G. D. Webster, D. P. Schmitt, N. P. Li, and L. Crysel, ‘The antihero in popular culture: Life history theory and the dark triad personality traits.’, Review of General Psychology, vol. 16, no. 2, p. 192, 2012.

[4]        R. K. Moule, S. H. Decker, and D. C. Pyrooz, ‘Social Capital, the Life-Course, and Gangs’, Handbook of Life-Course Criminology, pp. 143–158, 2013.

[5]        N. R. Sampson, E. A. Parker, R. R. Cheezum, T. C. Lewis, A. O’Toole, J. Patton, A. Zuniga, T. G. Robins, and C. C. Keirns, ‘A Life Course Perspective on Stress and Health Among Caregivers of Children With Asthma in Detroit’, Family & Community Health, vol. 36, no. 1, pp. 51–62, 2013.

[6]        C. M. Allison and J. S. Hyde, ‘Early menarche: Confluence of biological and contextual factors’, Sex Roles, pp. 1–10, 2011.

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