Coming from bad circumstances will kill you, even if you escape them.
July 18, 2015 8:58 AM   Subscribe

Stress causes DNA methylation, which contributes to aging. Hauling yourself up above more difficult circumstances causes more stress. Therefore, hauling yourself up above more difficult circumstances contributes to DNA methylation, which contributes to aging. QED.
posted by Punkey at 9:05 AM on July 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm sure these researchers mean well, but honest to god, I cannot for one more second bear another story about how my background is going to kill me, or somehow screwed me over in spite of all the improvements I made.

How is that helpful? It's not. Do they want me to just be relentlessly bitter about how hard I had to work? How is that helpful? It's not. There's sweet FA I can do about it. So why do I care? I do not.

In the history of the world, forever and always, people have had it easy and people have had it hard. C'est la frickin' vie. How about researchers shut up, and let us get on with our lives?
posted by gsh at 9:24 AM on July 18, 2015 [39 favorites]

*goes back to bed*
posted by Space Kitty at 9:27 AM on July 18, 2015 [8 favorites]

I have different take away from witchen.

It's helpful in that it shows the need for good counseling and, more importantly, the need to integrate stress management (meditation!) into education (especially for high achievers in disadvantaged contexts).

One thing the study doesn't address (or, at least, that I didn't see in the article) is a consideration of whether the gains from the higher achievement (in terms of better access to healthy food, better medical care, etc.) offset the impact of the stress. You may have older genes, but if your lifestyle is better overall, that may not matter as much.
posted by oddman at 9:48 AM on July 18, 2015 [13 favorites]

How about researchers shut up, and let us get on with our lives?

An entirely reasonable feeling based on the perpetual stream of bad news. But, I mean this in the gentlest way possible, this isn't about you. It's about everyone knowing that poverty is pernicious and having the fortune of being a more stable and resilient person doesn't undo that.
posted by chimaera at 9:51 AM on July 18, 2015 [57 favorites]

Researchers: no you shut up
posted by thelonius at 10:34 AM on July 18, 2015 [18 favorites]

I dunno. Reading things like this renews my determination to push for a better world. I mean...I'm dying faster anyway, right? If more studies keep getting published that can be used as evidence that privilege kills, maybe this will energize the populace enough to incite change.

After all, the folks who can lead comfortable, worry-free lives can only do so because there are so many other people whose lives will be shortened in service* of that. Not saying #EatTheRich or whatever, but people should be pissed off about it.

*more specifically, the nature of capitalist systems ensures that this "life exchange" is compulsory through wage exploitation, which is reinforced by social and political policy and the destruction of collective bargaining tools and social safety nets. Whatever. I'm probably wrong and I need a nap too.
posted by Ashen at 11:27 AM on July 18, 2015 [11 favorites]

"He was a lawyer now. He could hang the overalls on a nail and let them stiffen with the last sweat he had sweated into them. He could rent himself a room over the dry-goods store in Mason City and call it his office, and wait for somebody to come up the stairs where it was so dark you had to feel your way and where it smelled like the inside of an old trunk that's been in the attic twenty years. He was a lawyer now, and it had taken him a long time. It had taken him a long time because he had to be a lawyer on his terms and in his own way. But that was over. But maybe it had taken him too long. If something takes too long, something happens to you. You become all and only the thing that you want and nothing else, for you have paid too much for it, too much in wanting and too much in waiting and too much in getting. In the end they just ask you those crappy little questions."

Robert Penn Warren had it, back in 1946. I've always appreciated that I grew up in a way that took the high hard roads through life—my husband did, too—but I do think about that a lot, that maybe it cost us both too much and influenced too much of who we became.
posted by limeonaire at 11:36 AM on July 18, 2015 [52 favorites]

They seemed to bury the lead somewhat in that those from the disadvantaged group who were fairing poorly in school, getting in trouble and had some substance abuse issues were overall physically healthier. That turns the whole "The poor need to stop acting so irresponsibly" right on its head.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 11:38 AM on July 18, 2015 [12 favorites]

But, I mean this in the gentlest way possible, this isn't about you. It's about everyone knowing that poverty is pernicious and having the fortune of being a more stable and resilient person doesn't undo that.

And I mean this in the gentlest way possible as well: it can be about both. It should be about both. And the reality is, that it is indeed about both. I come from a moderately disadvantaged background – well-off white family, but that was extremely abusive and neglectful (I benefited from zero of their financial stability, as in, I did not have enough to eat more often than not, for instance) with a flair for misogyny, which is echoed in wider society, hello stress – and it's pretty depressing to hear "oh it's not about YOU, it's about everyone knowing how pernicious it is."

How are we supposed to know how pernicious it is without also listening to the very people it affects?

Saying "hey great, this doesn't help me deal with the stress" is a totally valid response. It was my response as well. Like, hey cool, great, I live in a society that doesn't want people like me to exist, so I'll die earlier. Thanks, science! This does not contribute to lowering my stress levels.

Science can do both things – it can contribute to wider awareness and offer solutions for those of us who are going to die earlier because society sucks and will suck until it finally gets better.
posted by fraula at 11:39 AM on July 18, 2015 [12 favorites]

When I'm talking personally to people from traumatic and adverse background I will ignore statements like "it's fine, I'm better for it, I'm fine now" because it's that person's individual life.

When we are having a national conversation about whether poor people are better off or fine going through what they are going through, I absolutely believe it's necessary to challenge people who are arguing out of self preservation or coping mechanisms against the reality they have been negatively impacted by trauma/poverty/and adverse circumstances.

The amount of harm that people who understandable don't want to face they have truly been impacted and it's not their fault because that is scary to face can cause to future people who could have better circumstances if we could acknowledge that's better for human health and wellbeing is worth standing up to.

A lot of parenting problems stem from adults not being able to see that their children deserve and need better than what they got, they tell their kids the same tales they and their parents told them "just be tough, just keep going, you'll be fine, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" and it sets these patterns even deeper than they have to be.

But this mirrors my own experience, when I was poor as shit and dealing with dangerous circumstance and trauma, I did the "right things" -quite smoking, drinking heavily, socializing with bad drunk people- and I got.... SICK. Disability level sick. For years. Doing all the right things.

Chilling out, drinking more, lowering my standards so I can actually socialize even though poor broke people tend to get drunk and smoke and do bad things-- is better for my health.

We could be telling people in bad circumstances all the wrong things, and shaming them for making responsable and healthy choices for what they are coping with.

If you want to live like a yogi you need access to an ashram. If you have to push your body, mind, and psycheto the breaking point all the fucking time with no hope of ever getting out, you'll probably be happier smoking, drinking heavily, and hanging out and laughing with other people taking a break from the pain and supporting each other with it. For some people reality IS BAD. Taking a break from it is needed. Clearing the mind and being present with emotions through meditation and other things can actually bring out more awareness of pain with no resources or options to actually address the harms. For people with extensive traumatic circumstances, intensive therapy or meditation practices can actually be destabilizing.

Poor people don't need more pressure to make better choices, they need meaningful change and for us to stop injuring them with what we are forcing them to endure.

Injured people deserve pain medicine. It has side effects, something people deserve to make informed choices about, but pain relief is a human need, it's a survival need.

Such a huge portion of services to "help" the underprivileged it loaded with shame. judgement, and bad advice that places the blame on the sholders of the most vulnerable people to avoid us actually just HELPING- with financial resources and helping services like house cleaning,healthy prepared meals, child care services, stress relieve services like massage-- self care to heal ones self from crushing injuries is like asking wounded people to do surgery on themselves. This is not a DIY thing when you are sick and injured, ability for duties of life and self care are WORSE than normal and shaming people for being unable to do it can often worsen peoples conditions.
posted by xarnop at 12:10 PM on July 18, 2015 [50 favorites]

One thing the study doesn't address (or, at least, that I didn't see in the article) is a consideration of whether the gains from the higher achievement (in terms of better access to healthy food, better medical care, etc.) offset the impact of the stress.


And how unfair is this study to minorities since it doesn't seem to take into the consideration that certain skins dry and age faster than others.
posted by infini at 12:23 PM on July 18, 2015

Research like this, framed in this way, makes one wonder if its a case against upward mobility and striving and remaining in your "place"?
posted by infini at 12:27 PM on July 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

how unfair is this study to minorities since it doesn't seem to take into the consideration that certain skins dry and age faster than others.

What do you mean? If you're talking about physical skin, this seems to suggest that increased pigmentation has the opposite effect. (That link is also a fascinating read that's kind of orthogonal to this discussion.) DNA methylation happens to cells throughout the body, not just the skin, as far as I know (though different parts of the body age faster than others). And the other effects mentioned in the original Atlantic article, such as higher blood pressure, more body fat, and higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, affect the entire body as well.
posted by limeonaire at 12:36 PM on July 18, 2015 [6 favorites]

Hmm, then I'm working on some old wives tales - I've always gotten the idea that more melanin also meant oilier skin which didn't show wrinkles like crows feet as rapidly as paler skin. Thank you for the link.
posted by infini at 1:02 PM on July 18, 2015

Let me dig around to see where I got the idea from.
posted by infini at 1:03 PM on July 18, 2015

This describes my own experiences pretty well. I come from a highly disordered and dysfunctional family, but also high-achieving. I was used as a lightning rod for all the family tension and abandoned, so I had to work extremely hard to get a college degree, find employment, and learn how to survive on my own without any support, no upbringing, and a traumatized and confused mind.

Listening to society, it is our personal obligation as Americans to become financially successful no matter the cost. And if we fail that, then we're treated like scum, and it's our own fault because bootstraps and all that mythological BS. I took care of myself OK and even graduated from law school with some achievement, but I had a nervous breakdown studying for the bar exam and my whole life collapsed. I ignored my circumstances and believed will-to-power was all it took to make it in the world, which ignores how complex and interdependent reality really is, not to mention our biological limitations.

What society tells us isn't for own convenience or our own good. My embittered theory is this "bootstraps" thing is a tool people use to feel superior to others, because if we fail to achieve success, then it's our own personal moral failing, and if we're successful, it's because we're the chosen ones with a socially-granted right to treat our inferiors with contempt and disregard (and we do come from the country that has a pathological need to murder black people and blame it on them for existing). It's also a way to retain moral superiority by blaming the individual's poor character and choices for their circumstances, even if they get a bullet in the gut for being a person with the wrong color skin up against a society stacked against them.

For some reason in America we need to feel superior to others, which requires inferiors beneath us, and nobody in their right mind would want to be an "inferior" in America. That means being dehumanized, treated with violence regularly (physical, social, and institutional), and potentially falling into the meat grinder that is America's ground floor, after which people use your remains to make hamburgers to feast on.

This belief system allows some to be moral, superior people _and_ ignore the unfairness and cruelty our "high morality" and "superiority" are built on. I guess this is one of those fringe benefits you get when you're in power and can shape beliefs to your advantage. There are a lot of Catch-22s and "gotchas!" involved here, and it's downright abusive.
posted by gehenna_lion at 1:23 PM on July 18, 2015 [17 favorites]

This is not a "Tall, Beautiful People Have More Sex And Are Rich; Short Uggos Are Fucked" type of study. It specifically addresses the fact that its results are empirical evidence about the negative health effects of sysyemic inequality and the way it messes with our biology. It is certainly not great news for this generation of disadvantaged go-getters, but in the long view this is the kind of research that can shape policy.
posted by grumpybear69 at 1:55 PM on July 18, 2015 [13 favorites]

I had a similar experience as gehenna_lion except my family also lacked achievement. Promptly had a nervous breakdown following graduation from grad school which I feel like I have only recently recovered from (2 years later). Anyway, it sucks, but at the same time I try (very hard) to make meaning out of it and muddle through like pretty much everyone else.
posted by the lake is above, the water below at 2:26 PM on July 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also, the whole "bootstraps" argument stems, imho, from people who have had success but can't or won't admit to themselves that it was significantly less hard for them than for less advantaged people. From the need to believe in their personal mythology. Because to admit that requires, in their minds, to admit that they are not nearly as extraordinary as they believe themselves to be.

I came to the revelation a while back that my life has been akin to bumper bowling.
posted by grumpybear69 at 2:47 PM on July 18, 2015 [8 favorites]

I think that they need to look at those same people 20 years later. While the disadvantaged achievers may not be as healthy as the advantaged achievers, my guess is that they will have left the disadvantaged non-achievers WAY behind in terms of mortality and morbidity. Being blasé only sustains you so long.
posted by MattD at 4:59 PM on July 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

It would be interesting and enlightening to be able to see how much your own cells have "aged". Is this an expensive test? Is it hard to do? Are there any commercial sequencing companies offering it?
posted by vogon_poet at 6:11 PM on July 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Okay I've stayed out because this is the sort of thread I talk WAY TOO MUCH in when someone else posts it. But: my takeaway from this is that striving to attain individual success within a capitalist, white supremacist, misogynist nation is to some extent a fool's game if you're not a white male capital-holder. I would suggest that collectively organizing to develop networks of mutual support that would allow us to define our own value in our own terms, rather than on the tainted terms of the rich, is the thing that we should be trying to do, rather than simply striving for individual success on capitalist terms. Of course, that's hard, and capital actively suppresses things like that, and well being a radical is itself harmful to one's health in a lot of ways.

I'm not surprised that the striving rule-followers are physically less healthy than mainstream-society dropouts; obviously, the things that capital wants us to do to ourselves are actively damaging to our health. It's not always as straightforwardly and obviously damaging as the stuff that Marx talks about (there's a long stretch of Capital that concerns, for example, the different debilitating and life-shortening ailments suffered by different types of Victorian-era worker, stuff like phossy jaw among matchstick makers - every category of work had its own grotesque sicknesses), but the damage is nonetheless real, and this research presents a decent way to quantify it. This is despite the fact that the author worded this article badly in ways that invite the "stay in your place" reading, and despite the fact that the article seems to be more about influencing government policy than encouraging bottom-up organization.

Part of the unquestioned American social ideology is the idea that staying on the straight and narrow is healthy. It's not. For most of us, what counts as the straight and narrow is in real terms slow suicide. Only the privileged get a version of the straight and narrow that leads to health.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 8:34 PM on July 18, 2015 [20 favorites]

I am in favor of any media coverage of the very real, empirically studied, hardships of poverty if it can debunk some bootstraps-based fantasy thinking.

Me too, but that's a big if.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:16 PM on July 18, 2015

I think the framing is part of the issue here. A more common way of stating these results might have said "controlling for self-control and resilience, disadvantaged people still age faster than advantaged people," but the linked article does seem to focus on the costs to the disadvantaged group and a lot of negative implications/conclusions associated with it.

It's the same depressingly realistic news either way, but I think different framing would downplay the "despite your best individual efforts" angle of it and highlight the angle of "poverty is empirically proven to be more stressful and disadvantageous despite any individual's best efforts, so maybe we should start addressing it more directly instead of defaulting to blaming the victims."

But I will say this writing especially rubbed me the wrong way:
So the kids who followed the demographically normative path tend to be the healthiest, even considering that relative poverty and lack of education are health risk factors. The message could be to never be an outlier, but that’s no message.
Like, don't send that hypothetical fucking message, then. Thank you.
posted by Johann Georg Faust at 10:05 PM on July 18, 2015 [3 favorites]


Really? They're using methylation as a sign of stress, damage, and aging?

Man, we are going to look at the era before epigenetic awareness as some goofy, goofy times.
posted by effugas at 11:11 PM on July 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Really? They're using methylation as a sign of stress, damage, and aging?

My knowledge of this stuff is pretty shallow. Why is using DNA methylation a bad move?
posted by dis_integration at 5:45 AM on July 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Have we a similar study of, say, Appalachian Mountain whites? Just over the border Mexican illegals? Just of the boat Vietnamese boat people? How do quantify self control? Is five years really long enough to make such bold assertions?

And, not least of all, what kind of support are these kids getting at home and in the community? There are times and places where the locals do their best to boost the best and the brightest at any cost; there are those that do the opposite. Do we know which is the case here?
posted by IndigoJones at 6:27 AM on July 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

This sounds like: If people are privileged and they exhibit self control and discipline, they are going with the flow of their social group and meeting expectations. If they are not privileged, and they try to achieve success, they are going against their social groups. So yeah, that sounds like it would be stressful, to be constantly at odds with your peers or family.

As others have pointed out (methylation?), the scientific methods weren't well defined and that hurt the credibility. Then I saw the (non)word "microaggressions" as a "cause" and realized there wasn't a lot of scrutiny in the reporting here. Let's assume methylation is a legitimate measurement, but please explain why, and don't rattle off a bunch of NYT speculation as the list of social/economic causes.
posted by hellslinger at 6:47 AM on July 19, 2015

For anyone not familiar with this, this article discusses even more evidence of some of this phenomenon:
Childhood Trauma Can Destroy Your Health Decades Later, Yet America Ignores It

And this extremely powerful piece about the medicalization of poverty, trauma, and oppression written by David Edward Walker; a Missouri Cherokee psychologist.
How the US Mental Health System Makes Natives Sick and Suicidal

posted by xarnop at 6:59 AM on July 19, 2015 [9 favorites]

Why does the article, and some of the responses, seem to focus on the US? It doesn't seem like this effect would be limited to just one country.
posted by Too-Ticky at 7:15 AM on July 19, 2015

"microaggression" is both a word and a thing. A useful word, and a real thing. The idea that people from non-privileged groups have the right to be as sensitive to microaggressions as the rich and powerful are is controversial, but the existence of microaggressions themselves isn't.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 9:43 AM on July 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

>One thing the study doesn't address (or, at least, that I didn't see in the article) is a consideration of whether the gains from the higher achievement (in terms of better access to healthy food, better medical care, etc.) offset the impact of the stress.

The article did address this indirectly, and from my read, the health costs of high achievement were *not* offset. Continued high achievement came at continued cost to physical health. Here's one passage from the article that mentioned it:

"Researchers at Harvard School of Public Health recently found that the greatest disparities between blacks and whites in sleep quantity were among people with high-level professional jobs; that high socioeconomic status is beneficial in terms of sleep among whites but detrimental among blacks."

Anyway, it sounded to me like the takeaway was that alienation is objectively bad for physical health. Even if you're alienated for all the "right" reasons (such as, because you're an extremely self-disciplined high-achiever).

Privileged high achievers weren't alienated, but disadvantaged high achievers were. Imo that's because the vast majority of privileged people don't have to work very hard to rack up "achievements," even ones that take a lot of work/focus/discipline for disadvantaged people to accomplish (such as, graduating from college). So the vast majority of privileged people rack up "achievements" and are ostensibly "high achievers." And if you're just yet another (privileged) person with those achievements, even if you happen to also be a hard worker/focused/self-disciplined/etc, you're not an outlier within your (privileged) social circle in any significant, obvious way, and therefore, you're not going to have to bear the stress of alienation.

A while back there was an FPP about the culture shock and stress that some high-achieving kids from disadvantaged backgrounds felt when they started college -- imo, this FPP covers similar ground. I think the message of both FPPs is that upward mobility is psychologically and emotionally *difficult,* and that apparently, the psychological and emotional effects are so stressful that they actually grind down your DNA telomeres and makes you (physically, literally) old before your time.

I don't think the researchers are proposing a solution. I think they're just trying to get a more granular understanding of "the talented tenth." My personal takeaway was that it's apparently not the specific achievements/work that will kill you, since lots of (privileged) people accomplish the same achievements and do the same work -- it's the stress/pressure of simply being in the talented tenth at all, instead of being in the ~normal ninetieth~, for *any* values of "talented" or "normal."
posted by rue72 at 9:02 PM on July 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study material (xarnop links to a piece above about it) is truly sobering stuff. And what's worse (if not criminal): (a) the lack of attention that this material gets among policymakers; and (b) the stubborn persistence, in the face of all contrary fact and science, of the Horatio Alger narrative. Which is doubly shitty because according to this, the Alger narrative doesn't actually usually involve "hard work and self-control and resilience are rewarded in the end" as much as it does "rich white man hears about the plight of the struggling kid and saves the kid in the end." On the other hand, the "rich white man saves the day" version of the narrative may (on the evidence of the science detailed here) actually be the truer picture of the way things actually work -- assuming that the "pulling yourself up by the bootstraps" fiction is, in the end, just that, and assuming that rich white men actually save anyone's days but their own (and their children's) anymore.
posted by blucevalo at 7:36 AM on July 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

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