Although it is well documented that stress can influence health in a detrimental manner, objective measures of the effects of stress are a source of ongoing study. Traditionally, physical scientists have lead the charge to discover biological quantification of the effects of social environments.
Now, social scientists at Northwestern University’s Cells to Society (C2S): The Center on Social Disparities and Health are reaching across Northwestern’s two campuses and a number of social, life and biomedical disciplines to offer a 21st century look at how biological, social and cultural dynamics intersect and affect health throughout the lifespan.
C2S’s emphasis on biomarker methodologies in community-based and population studies — such as in surveys that examine health in aging adults and stress in adolescents — is an important factor in the center’s recent award of $1.2 million from the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).
“We won this grant because of the Institute for Policy Research, which has a 40-year history of work on inequality, combined with our innovative approaches to bringing social, life and biomedical sciences together to address population health from pregnancy through old age,” said Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, director of C2S, IPR faculty fellow and professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern.
Health related to socioeconomic disparities in stress levels, for example, is a major focus of C2S. Targeting racial and ethnic health inequalities is another top priority.
“We researchers have explained mental and physical health by levels of education, income, access to health care, parenting, and so on,” said Chase-Lansdale. “We now are proposing to look at the biomarkers of stress related to discrimination, to segregated neighborhoods, to the psychological distress of not having enough income or wherewithal to protect your children from violence and poverty.”
C2S’s focus on stress is informed by an extensive literature showing that the fight/flight response occurs too often in modern life and lasts too long. C2S researchers are drawing on emerging research that examines how stress levels affect brain and body chemistry in relationship to poverty and discrimination.
Stress is now seen as a major risk factor to health, with effects perhaps as large as those caused by cigarette smoke,” Chase-Lansdale said. “Research shows that a lot of intense stress early in life may be related to such problems as cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes down the road.”
Measuring pre-disease pathways of young people as predictors of how health will be affected later in life is a characteristic of C2S research. Another study that is getting under way will measure stress related to discrimination as a possible precursor to cardiovascular risks. And true to Cells to Society’s name, a provocative C2S study found a link to increased risk of diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol and heart attacks for adults who did not get enough nutrition in utereo.
“We think that C2S is addressing important questions, given the consistent positive correlation between adults’ health and their level of education,” said Penelope Peterson, dean, School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern. “We currently are searching for a new assistant professor in social disparities, health and education who will be an important link between our school and C2S.”
C2S researchers also are involved in building relationships with leading researchers from the worlds of biology, biochemistry and medicine. A number of formal and informal collaborations already are emerging.
C2S’s synergies will allow leading researchers from diverse disciplines to offer more precise findings on how complex biological, social and cultural dynamics hinder health, she said.
Students also will greatly benefit from the synergies. “C2S is an important research initiative that is closely related to new directions in education, including our recently developed Global Health Studies program that has rapidly attracted a great deal of student interest,” said Daniel Linzer, dean of the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern. “We are especially excited in Weinberg about opportunities for students to combine classroom education with significant research experience working with faculty, and both C2S and Global Health create such an opportunity.”
“In the process, Chase-Lansdale said, “we expect C2S research to influence policy and practice agendas and ultimately reduce some of the challenging health disparities that people face throughout their lives.”
Source: Northwestern University