Greg Miller and Edith Chen, researchers from Northwestern University, delivered a talk at the University of California, Santa Barbara on Monday, May 16 about health in America in the 21st century. Their talk focused on how America’s health, when compared to other industrialized countries, is severely lacking due to shorter lifespans, greater disabilities, and increased disease. This pattern can be seen across racial groups with varying socioeconomic status, despite the fact that many Americans spend a large fraction of our gross national product on health care.
“This isn’t just a problem of low income,” said Miller in the first section of the talk. “Our studies have shown that there is a graded, quite linear trend between income and life expectancy. Researchers tested the possibilities of these issues by looking at genetics, access to care, lifestyle and presence of environmental toxins. The tests concluded that socioeconomic life expectancies are fanning out overtime.”
Chen presented the second portion of the talk, which specifically deals with childhood asthma. “Childhood asthma is the most prevalent chronic condition in childhood,” said Chen. “Similarly to health care, it is patterned by socioeconomic status.”
In one experiment, Chen tested the blood of kids with asthma by using substances that mimic allergens to test the severity of their reactions. The children and parents filled out questionnaires regarding their genetics, assets, and income. The blood test results were placed into categories based on socioeconomic status gathered from the questionnaire.
Researchers concluded that children with lower socioeconomic status had increased production of TH2 cytokines, which are cells that react to allergens. As family savings decline, there is an increase of TH2 cytokines being produced. This data demonstrates that lower socioeconomic status affects lifespan and health.
Another experiment conducted was a child’s response to gray-area social situations, which refers to interactions that are ambiguous and do not lean towards being positive or negative. Children were asked to watch videos of different social situations and assess whether it was benign, threatening, or in the middle.
“In videos with obvious responses, children with lower socioeconomic status did not have any difference in response compared to other children,” said Chen. “However, children from lower socioeconomic status families interpret ambiguous social situations more negatively than other children of higher socioeconomic status.”
In the final portion of the talk, Chen presented her research on family conflict in asthmatic children of different socioeconomic status. Parents and children both filled out questionnaires about conflict. Then, the parents and children were asked to have an eight-minute conversation about their most disagreed topic.
Researchers tested the amount of fractional exhaled nitric oxide (FeNO), a substance produced when a child is exposed to allergens or having an asthma attack, in the children after the conversation had ended. This data showed that children with a lower socioeconomic status produced an increased FeNO concentration when compared to other children.
Both researchers will continue to discuss health in America in the 21st century in two more talks. They will present more data from their studies and provide details on specific demographic groups in order to provide more insight into the topic as a whole.