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Poor Childhood Linked to Higher Infection Risk in Middle Age

Update Date: Nov 01, 2013 05:43 PM EDT

Growing up poor may make people more susceptible to catching colds, according to new research.

Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University have linked lower socioeconomic status during childhood and adolescence to the length of telomeres, the protective cap at the end of chromosomes. Researchers explain that the length of chromosomes plays a role in determining a person's susceptibility to colds in middle age.

The study revealed that children and teens with parents of lower socioeconomic status grow up to have shorter telomeres. Researchers explain that telomere length, which shortens as people age, can also be used to predict how has a person ages.  As people age, these protective caps on the end of cells shorten. Cells then lose the ability to function normally and eventually dies.

Previous studies have linked shorter telomeres to early onset of illnesses like cardiovascular disease and cancer.  However, the latest findings reveal that shortened telomeres can also increase a person's susceptibility to acute infectious disease in young to midlife adults.

Researchers found that children who grew up in household with low socioeconomic status had shorter telomeres and were more prone to common colds.

"This provides valuable insight into how our childhood environments can influence our adult health," lead researcher Sheldon Cohen, the Robert E. Doherty Professor of Psychology in CMU's Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, said in a news release.

The study involved 152 healthy volunteers between the ages of 18 and 55. Participants were asked to report whether they currently own their home and whether their parents owned the family home when they were between the ages of 1 and 18. Afterwards, they were exposed to a rhinovirus, which causes a common cold, and quarantined for five days to see if they actually developed an upper respiratory infection.

The findings revealed that participants from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, as indicated by fewer years that their parents were homeowners, had shorter than average telomere length. In fact, telomere length decreased by 5 percent for each year the participants' parents did not own a home. The study revealed that parental homeownership in both early childhood and adolescence were both associated with adult telomere length.

Researchers also found that participants with lower childhood socioeconomic status were also more likely to become infected by the cold virus. The risk of developing a cold increased by 9 percent for each year their parents did not own a home during their childhood years up to age 18.

"We have found initial evidence for a biological explanation of the importance of childhood experiences on adult health," Cohen said. "The association we found in young and midlife adults suggests why those raised by parents of relatively low socioeconomic status may be at increased risk for disease throughout adulthood."

The findings are published in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity.

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