How Does Poverty Lower Life Expectancy?

Biological processes caused by stress are linked to early aging, death among Detroit’s poorest residents.

Stephen Henderson meets with Arline Geronimus, research professor at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research and professor at the School of Public Health, along with Angela Reyes, executive director and founder of the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation, to discuss the link between the stress of living in poverty and the early onset of age-related diseases that is affecting Detroiters at the cellular level. The main points of their conversation about how poverty can take years off your life:

  • Determining biological age: A multi-university study led by U of M suggests that chronic stress is linked to decreased length of telomeres, structures on the tips of all chromosomes, which get gradually shorter with age. Measuring telomere length is useful when calculating how fast a person is aging as well as their biological age. The study found that white, African American, and people of Mexican descent living in Detroit neighborhoods are all experiencing stress that is measurably impacting their health negatively.
  • Nurture, not nature: Geronimus says the reason health disparities exist across race and class is not inherently biological. It is the constant bombardment of environmental factors such as poverty and racism that cause chronic stress, not genetics. She says these stressors could cause people to age, develop age-related diseases, and die earlier.​
  • Citywide stress: Reyes says that Detroit as a city is dealing with these environmental stressors that are shortening lives on a cellular level. She says the way to mitigate the impact of stress for Detroit residents is to become aware of these health issues and to create stronger social support systems to counteract the ongoing racial and socio-economic issues they face on a daily basis.

Hear the full conversation by clicking the audio link above.