Cerebrum Winter 2020

If you’re like me, it’s distressing to think that something as uncontrollable as the social class you’re born into determines your lifespan.

like this, given the time commitment involved (i.e., eight weeks of two-hour classes) and the fact that lower SES parents may not have the time available or mental bandwidth to dedicate to such training programs due to working multiple jobs, etc. Further, the research showing that it’s not just objective economic circumstances that matter for health, but also our perception of our standing in a social hierarchy, suggest that we may also want to implement interventions to improve health for people who feel low on the social ladder. So, what else can be done? To the extent that individuals who perceive themselves to be lower on the social ladder feel that they are not valued and don’t belong in certain places, it becomes much harder to shut down the stress response. Groundbreaking research by Gregory Walton and Geoffrey Cohen at Stanford University suggests that this is indeed the case. When lower SES minority students at Stanford were given a brief social belonging intervention emphasizing that they, and people like them, did belong and could thrive at such a prestigious university, their grades, and their health, improved drastically, even when measured four years later. So, while we should strive to ensure that everyone’s material needs are met, we should also be keenly aware that social belongingness is another life-sustaining need that all must have to live happy, healthy lives. To achieve true health equity then we need to promote both monetary and psychological fulfillment so all Americans can thrive, regardless of their social class background. l

meta-analysis, or “study of studies,” was recently conducted to determine the strength of the relationship between SES and stress reactivity across the whole body of research in this area. This seminal paper reported a somewhat surprising pattern of findings. There were no differences in blood pressure or heart rate responses during stressful experiences as a function of SES. There were, however, differences in how the heart was functioning once the stressor was over, with heart rate and blood pressure remaining elevated for longer in lower SES individuals. This suggests that everyone, regardless of SES background, has an initial cardiovascular response to a stressor, but that lower SES individuals recover more slowly. In other words, stress may “live on” in the bodies of people with lower social status, producing greater wear and tear on the heart and arteries that leads to greater health risks over time. This may be due in part to the lower levels of prefrontal cortex activity in the brain during emotion regulation mentioned above, though no known research has tested this directly.

Promoting Health Equity Moving Forward If you’re like me, it’s distressing to think that something as uncontrollable as the social class you’re born into determines your lifespan. So what can we do to mitigate the deleterious impacts of socioeconomic status on the brain and body? Some ongoing research is testing whether simply giving money to people living in poverty can change their cognitive and emotional functioning, while work by Natalie Brito at New York University examines if paid parental leave policies could lessen the financial burden of parenthood, which would benefit everyone, especially those with lower SES. Such institutional changes at the level of societal structure may prove useful for promoting health but would require significant policy change that not all Americans favor. This awareness has led some psychologists to ask if there are other strategies we can arm lower SES families with to promote better health outcomes even in the absence of sweeping policy change. One interesting intervention—called Parents and Children Making Connections- Focusing on Attention— worked with parents of young children to provide them with strategies for dealing with regulating emotional responses to stressors in the family, and for training their children’s’ attention. After eight weeks of attending two-hour small group classes, children whose parents were in the intervention showed significant improvements in cognitive function and in brain activity critical for attention, compared to those in a control condition whose parents did not receive the intervention. This suggests that working with parents to help develop emotion regulation strategies and strengthening childrens’ abilities to sustain their attention on a task could facilitate better outcomes. Of course, there are challenges with interventions

Financial Disclosure: The author has no conflicts of interest to report.


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