Children who grow up poor and underprivileged experience a variety of health problems at higher rates than the general population. And these health problems persist independently of the economic status that they experience as adults. But a new study, published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, offers some hope. It suggests that giving families as little as 14 hours of training aimed at improving parental nurturing can significantly reduce a child’s long-term inflammation levels — a known risk factor for a variety of health problems, including diabetes, coronary heart disease, and stroke. These findings are significant because they offer a biological basis for the benefits that social workers see following psychosocial interventions.
the training discussed risky behaviors, household rules, and racism
To reach these conclusions, the researchers recruited 272 African American mothers and children residing in rural Georgia, half of which were living below the poverty line. Then, the researchers provided 173 of the mother-child pairs with 14 hours — or 7 weeks — of parental training when their children turned 11. The training taught parents how to speak to their kids about risky behaviors, household rules, racism, and alcohol use. The remaining mother-child pairs received pamphlets on child development and stress management through the mail instead.
Eight years later, the scientists took samples of the teenagers' blood to determine their levels of inflammation. They also recorded other health variables, such as smoking and weight status, as well as the level of parental involvement that they experienced. They found that children whose parents had participated in the training had much lower levels of inflammation than the children of parents who didn't. Moreover, the benefits were "most pronounced for the families living in the most disadvantaged circumstances," the researchers wrote in the study. These sorts of findings are provocative, the researchers say, because they "reflect a causal process in which [parental nurturing] offsets some of the health risks associated with childhood disadvantage."
Andrea Danese, a psychiatrist and inflammation expert at King’s College London who did not participate in the study, also called the study "provocative" in an email to The Verge. He said that researchers already know that short "interventions targeting parenting practices can have meaningful effects for behavioral outcomes in children," but that this paper — which he called scientifically sound — "shifts the focus to biological outcomes, such as inflammation, which we know affect risk for medical conditions that are more prevalent in children from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds." Thus, the study appears to provide tangible, measurable biological evidence of the beneficial effects of short-term childhood interventions.
But William Copeland, en epidemiologist at Duke University, thinks the study could have been better. "There was no assessment of inflammation markers prior to study involvement, so it is possible that these kids had lower levels to begin with," he said in an email exchange. Still, he said, the results are "very interesting" and "intriguing."
"The results... break the boundaries between social and medical sciences."
"The results... break the boundaries between social and medical sciences," Danese said, adding that he would like to see it replicated in different patient populations. If the findings hold up to further scrutiny, the study’s impact could be large and widespread because it supports the idea that even short social interventions — ones that last only 14 hours — can have long-lasting effects on a child’s health, and life.