The Rich make Us Sick

SOCIETY

The American dream promises that if we work hard, we can transcend the social class we're born into. But it can't be ignored, according to a growing body of research. Scientists are finding that socioeconomic status--our relative status when it comes to education, job, income and other factors--impacts our physical health.

At a recent National Institutes of Health conference, scientists highlighted a powerful discovery: People of lower socioeconomic status are mere likely to develop a serious disease--like heart disease or cancer--and die early than people of higher social standing. The link between status and health is mediated by complex biological pathways that are not yet understood. But scientists de believe that psychological factors such as stress, shame, depression, poor social support and pessimism--all burdens of low social class-make the body vulnerable to poor health.

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As a clinical psychologist, I believe that chronic exposure to lower socioeconomic status produces vulnerability to illness and biological deficits. The phases of my psychosocial model of development apply to both individuals and groups: People marginalized by society are initially unaware of their social standing (Phase 1). But someone ridiculed for poverty clearly becomes aware of class status (Phase 2). If, with maturity, people can consolidate these experiences into a useful identity (Phase 3), resilience or healing can occur.

Further study is needed to sort out the psychosocial and biological issues surrounding socioeconomic status and health. But understanding the link will hopefully lead to public policy that can heal our citizens and the country as a whole.

ILLUSTRATION (COLOR)

By Lauren Storck, Ph.D., clinical instructor in psychiatry, Harvard Medical School

Adapted by Ph.D.

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