Disadvantaged children perceive more hostility, damaging their hearts

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 childrens 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

Contact: Craig Dunhoff
Center for the Advancement of Health

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