Near factors, such as liquor store density, domestic violence, and crime, can be linked to biological factors, such as stress hormone responses in children, according to a new study in New Orleans.
Violence is not the only source of stress for the children, but it is important, said lead author Katherine P. Theall of the Global Community Health and Behavioral Services to the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans.
“I think we often overlook the impact of just a witness to violence or living in communities with higher violence,” Theall told Reuters Health by e-mail. “Moreover, it is important to think about the connections between community violence (often coming from the larger structural forces and the lack of infrastructure and investment in some neighborhoods), what that means for violence and other stressors in the house, and the final impact on those who are the most vulnerable, like children.”
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The researchers studied 85 black children, in the age of five to 16, of 52 neighborhoods of New Orleans with a different density of businesses selling alcohol, reports of violent crime and reports of domestic violence.
The children were subjected to psychological stress tests developed specifically for young people. Primary organic results were telomere length and cortisol functioning.
In children who lived near more liquor stores, domestic violence and violent crime, cortisol levels were more likely to remain high and less likely to return to normal after the stress test.
Telomere length decreased with a small, but measurable amount for each additional liquor store in a child in the neighborhood, and each report of domestic violence or violent crime within 500 metres (1600 feet) of the property, as stated in JAMA Pediatrics, 14 November.
“The results indicate that the effect of negative neighborhood-level factors is measurable at the biological level, even in children,” the authors write.
It is difficult to generalize a study of only 85 children, Theall said. And biological markers, such as stress hormones and telomeres are no “hard endpoints” such as illness or social problems. These markers may have consequences for the health of the risks later, Theall said.
“I think that at the neighborhood level, we need to think about the built and social environment and how they promote violence and disorder,” she said. “The change of use of such environments by means of changes in the policy, empowerment or collective efficacy building are a number of possible ways.”
Parents and policy makers should be aware that children are not immune to their larger area or even in the home environment, Theall said.
“Early adverse experiences to have under our skin to influence our biology,” said Megan R. Gunnar of the University of Minnesota Institute of Child Development, which was not part of the new study.
“Animal studies where we can experimental control of exposure to adversity to demonstrate that the nature of the effects observed in this study are predictive of poor health later in development,” Gunnar told Reuters Health by e-mail. “It’s not rocket science to know that children need a safe place to live, to grow into healthy and productive adults.”
“Despite this, many of the children in these neighborhoods will be resilient,” Gunnar said. “Identify the protective factors that support resilience and building on them, especially for children with the effects of exposure to toxins, is the appropriate response to the pediatric healthcare problems revealed by this study.”