Research links socioeconomic stress to metabolic syndrome in black youth

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Socioeconomic stress could have a major impact on black young adults’ heart health, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

While death and morbidity due to cardiovascular disease (CVD) have been declining steadily in the United States for years, lead researcher Gregory E. Miller, PhD, and his team explained in their study that some populations—notably black youth whose families struggled during the 2007-2009 “Great Recession”—have actually seen an increase in risk of CVD and metabolic syndrome (MetS). According to Miller’s research, black teens who saw significant financial downturn during the recession had higher rates of MetS five years after the fact.

Miller and co-authors drew a sample of 328 young adults from the SHAPE (Strong African American Families Healthy Adult Panel) study, all of whom lived in rural Georgia and were of different socioeconomic statuses. The SHAPE study had been tracking the children since they were 11 years old; they experienced the recession as teens, at ages 16 or 17.

According to the study, 60 percent of the teenagers’ families experienced serious economic instability in the years following the recession. That percentage includes families who began as steady, low-income earners and dropped into poverty after the recession, as well as families who had already been below the poverty line and fell into more dire conditions. Around 40 percent of families were unaffected, Miller wrote, remaining “stably lower income.”

Miller and his team used a set of objective and subjective data to characterize each teenager’s experience during the recession retrospectively, ranging from income statistics to questions about making ends meet. When the subjects turned 25 years old, a phlebotomist visited each individual’s home to take a blood sample and test each participant for MetS and CVD risks, more than five years after the recession hit their families.

Previous studies have determined older adults are at increased risk for cardiovascular events during economic downturns, but no conclusive evidence has been found showing young adults experience the same stresses and increased cardiometabolic risk, Miller and co-authors wrote. Their research showed 18.6 percent of all 25-year-olds examined tested positive for metabolic syndrome as defined by the International Diabetes Federation, and those rates were higher in the “deepening poverty” and “downward mobility” subgroups, at 27.5 percent and 21.8 percent, respectively. These numbers were higher than in the “stable low-income” group, which had a MetS prevalence of 10.4 percent.

According to the study, risk of CVD and MetS increased linearly with financial stress. The rate of MetS in young adults who experienced deepening poverty during the recession is around 50 percent higher than in the greater American population of twentysomethings, Miller wrote, citing the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

“This article’s findings are unique in suggesting that larger macroeconomic conditions also have implications for the cardiometabolic health of young people making the transition to adulthood,” Miller and co-authors wrote in the paper. “If these disparities in cardiometabolic risk persist, these young adults will likely show disproportionately high rates of CVD morbidity and mortality in the coming decades, accentuating the already pronounced health inequities present in disadvantaged black communities in the rural Southeast.”