Aging is a natural, continuous process that occurs from the moment one is born and becomes more pronounced in middle age and beyond. Aging involves a gradual decline in both physical and mental capacity and is marked by an increased risk of disease and ultimately death. While everyone ages, this process is not linear and can be influenced by a multitude of factors including genetics as well as differences in physical and social environments. While it is less discussed, poverty is another circumstance that impacts this phenomenon. Further exploration of poverty and premature aging is needed in order to understand this issue.
How Premature Aging Affects Those in Poverty
People in poverty may experience several symptoms related to premature aging, including:
- Limited physical capability: A study that the European Journal of Ageing published in 2019 assessed the association between poverty and premature aging through several tests frequently used to measure physical capability, including chair rise performance, hand grip strength and balance aptitude. Jump height was also measured for supplemental data. Researchers found that adults who lived below the relative poverty line for four or more years had less favorable scores in each measure of physical capability compared to financially stable individuals. This research supports previous studies that illustrated associations between poverty and reported limitations in performing basic self-care tasks such as bathing, dressing, toileting, transferring, continence and eating.
- Poorer cognitive functioning: Poverty has persistently been linked to cognitive functioning deficits. For example, middle-aged people who have experienced poverty score lower on cognitive function assessments which analyze verbal memory, performance, speed domains and executive skills, according to a study conducted by Al Hazzouri in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine in 2016. Moreover, cognitive performance, particularly processing speed, grows worse with further cumulative exposure to economic hardship.
- Increased inflammatory levels and biological risk: High inflammatory levels and biological risks correlate with an increased risk of disease and mortality, all of which are associated with aging. Inflammatory levels can be assessed by calculating the number of immune cells in the blood that trigger systemic inflammation. High levels of inflammatory cells such as interleukin-6 and tumor necrosis factor-α were detected in people experiencing economic hardship for four or more years. Similarly, a study published by the National Library of Medicine found that poverty status between the ages of 20-70 is marked by increased biological risks such as high blood pressure, pulse rate, total cholesterol, body mass index, glycated hemoglobin, c-reactive protein and albumin. In this study, Eileen M. Crimmins states that “a person in his or her 40s who lives in or near poverty has a level of biological risk similar to that of a person about 60 in a better-off family.”
- Early onset of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs): While the relationship between communicable diseases and poverty has been well established, researchers have recently established an elevated risk of developing NCDs such as diabetes, stroke, heart attack and cancer in populations with lower socioeconomic status. Moreover, poverty increases the risk of death and disability from these diseases.
- Early death: Premature aging among impoverished people ultimately results in early onset mortality. Even when biological risks are similar between those in poverty and the nonpoor, the former has a life expectancy of approximately 20 years shorter than the latter. Research conducted by the National Institute of Health in 2022 found that premature death risk in impoverished people increases even more when combined with other types of adversity in early childhood such as crowded housing or parental separation. Individuals with two adverse experiences have a 27% higher risk of early death, while those with four experiences have a whopping 45% higher risk.
Combating Poverty and Premature Aging
One way to combat premature aging in impoverished communities is to elucidate how poverty itself speeds up the aging process. This area of research has been relatively understudied, though several hypotheses have been offered. Researchers at the American Journal of Preventive Medicine propose that people in poverty may lack the proper resources to follow healthy lifestyles and access health care services, thus resulting in unfavorable health outcomes. Other studies suggest that the chronic stress that often accompanies prolonged poverty drives premature aging.
Despite the importance of researching these topics, studies can be hard to fund. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is one organization that provides more funds for biomedical research than any other organization in the world. In 2022 alone, the NIH invested nearly $45 billion in appropriations to researchers working to improve human health. For example, the NIH provides 75% salary support to working researchers for a minimum of two years and up to $50,000 to interdisciplinary teams. This has benefited people like Rita Hama, a clinician and instructor at Stanford University, who is trying to “better understand how the social, psychological, political, cultural and economic circumstances of those living in poverty influence their chances for a healthy life.” Hopefully, supplementing research efforts with poverty reduction tactics will sever the link between poverty and premature aging altogether.
– Olivia Welling