Poor Students Who Excel, Sadly, Often Face Serious Health Risks

Two new depressing studies: racism may make you die sooner, and kids who move out of their poverty-stricken neighborhoods and upwards don't fare as well, healthwise, as kids who don't. Maybe the Jeffersons shouldn't have moved on up.

latina.com reports that, "According to Fusion, medical studies have shown that racial bias can lead to chronic stress problems for the victim, which can lead to a change in how our brains function and respond to germs." In addition, reports have found that racism can also bring on anxiety, depression and cardiovascular health issues.

It's long been known that Hispanics and blacks have more health complications, and shorter lives, than Caucasians.  Theories abound but again, it's most likely the chronic stress that many live under.

On the same sad subject, Gregory E. Miller, Edith Chen and Gene H. Brody write that upward mobility may cause some to slide backwards.  In The New York Times, they say, "Those who do climb the ladder, against the odds, often pay a little-known price: Success at school and in the workplace can exact a toll on the body that may have long-term repercussions for health."

They note that,  despite the risks that lower-income children face, many perform admirably in school, avoid drugs and go on to college.  Is that racist?  Sounds it to me.

But the writers point out that it was long thought that "if disadvantaged children were succeeding academically and emotionally, they might also be protected from health problems that were more common in lower-income youth. "

Unfortunately, this has not been the case.  Of the young people studied who beat the odds, "while they were achieving success by all conventional markers: doing well academically, staying out of trouble, making friends and developing a positive sense of self. . . underneath, however, their physical health was deteriorating."

The writers add, "They were more obese, had higher blood pressure and produced more stress hormones (like cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline). Remarkably, their health was even worse than peers who, at age 11, had been rated by teachers as aggressive, difficult and isolated. They were at substantial risk for developing diabetes or hypertension down the line."

At age 20, the lower-income college kids had greater obesity, higher blood pressure and more stress hormones than those who did not make it to college. (Their health was also worse than that of peers in more affluent, educated neighborhoods.)

Clearly, upward mobility does not always provide the expected “return on investment” when it comes to health. "If we look at the life expectancy associated with a college education, blacks gain about four fewer years from bachelor’s degrees than do whites," the NYT writers relay. "In fact, black college graduates have shorter life expectancies than do white high school graduates."

Why is this happening?  The writers postulate that " most participants are the first in their families to attend college. They feel tremendous internal pressure to succeed, so as to ensure their parents’ sacrifices have been worthwhile. Many feel socially isolated and disconnected from peers from different backgrounds. They may encounter racism and discrimination."

But it goes beyond that.  Behaving diligently all of the time leaves people feeling exhausted and sapped of willpower. Worn out from having their noses to the grindstone all the time, they may let their health fall by the wayside, neglecting sleep and exercise, and like many of us, overindulging in comfort foods.

So is there no hope for low-income students who climb out of poverty?  Of course not.  The authors suggest that schools and colleges that serve lower-income students could provide health education, screenings and checkups as a part of their curriculum, while schools and clinics could also offer stress management programs, targeting lower-income, higher-achieving young people, to help them balance the competing demands on their minds and bodies.

But here's my favorite.  Helping these kids learn to blow off steam in productive ways.  Do what I do when stressed.  Go for a run.  Shoot some hoops.  Okay, I never do that.  But I do go get in my car or find a private place where I can scream (with no one calling the cops) for a minute or two, or punch a pillow or two,  and that usually calms me down.  On a more practical side, providing mentors would also help.  I've seen how it works with children struggling to read. Everyone needs a friend.  And what joy when you realize you have truly helped someone, and made a difference in their lives.


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