Study links insulin resistance, advanced cell aging with childhood poverty: Research with Black youths in one of the poorest regions in the U.S.

Black adolescents who lived in poverty and were less optimistic about the future showed accelerated aging in their immune cells and were more likely to have elevated insulin resistance at ages 25-29, researchers found.

Allen W. Barton, a professor of human development and family studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is the first author of the study, which tracked the health of 342 African Americans for 20 years, from adolescence to their mid- to late twenties. The researchers’ goal was to explore links between the individuals’ childhood social environment and insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes where cells don’t respond well to insulin or use blood glucose for energy.

The participants lived in rural Georgia, a region with one of the highest poverty rates and shortest life expectancies in the U.S.

“Once we found some compelling evidence that family poverty during childhood was associated with participants’ insulin resistance in their late 20s, we looked at immune cell aging as a possible mediator, something that transmits the effect,” Barton said. “And we found support for that. Immune cell aging was a pathway, a mechanism through which poverty was associated with insulin resistance.”

Published in the journal Child Development, the findings support the hypothesis that chronic diseases such as diabetes and metabolic syndrome that occur at significantly higher rates among Black adults and low-income populations may partially originate with experiences much earlier in life – even during childhood – and that such disadvantages can influence individuals’ cognition and physiology.

“Understanding these health disparities associated with race and socioeconomic status really requires a developmental perspective, but prospective research with these populations is sparse,” Barton said.

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