A recent study by Foverskov et al. (2019) published in the European Journal of Aging found a correlation between sustained periods of poverty and a variety of adverse health effects, including reduced physical strength, cognitive functioning, and liver inflammation. The researchers studied approximately 5,000 people selected from Danish population statistics, and found that those who had been in poverty for over four years showed significantly reduced physical ability, cognitive capacity, and inflammation than other participants of similar age, leading to early aging.
Many different tasks were assigned to the participants of the study. To measure physical ability, measurements were taken of how many times a participant could sit down or stand up from a chair, how hard they could grip an object, how high they could jump, and how well they could balance. For the cognitive evaluation, participants were asked to complete presented sentences, make conversational analogies, and finish number series. The C-Reactive Protein, produced by inflamed livers, was measured through blood tests to evaluate inflammation of the participants.
The researchers measured poverty through what is termed ‘economic hardship’, meaning living with an income of 60% below the poverty line. Critically, this study found that that sustained periods of poverty significantly predicted early aging, rather than simply the presence of a period or two of economic hardship. This finding held true regardless of the developmental period in which the episode or couple episodes of economic hardship occurred, and supports the results of an earlier study by Kahn and Pearlin (2014).
Additionally, the researchers used statistical models to calculate which participants showed a high probability of future economic hardship, and found that these individuals also showed reduced physical functioning and inflammation but not reduced cognitive functioning. This result indicates that individuals on a likely trajectory toward poverty may also suffer negative health consequences.
The researchers noted that findings by Ahnquist, Fredlund, and Wamala (2007) indicated that perceived financial duress had greater negative health consequences than genuine economic hardship. It was also noted, however, that this study compared self-reported economic hardship with personal income rather than comparing it with family income, the marker used in the featured study. Other research indicates that family income below the poverty line is a better measure of economic hardship than personal income below the poverty line, however further research comparing the two measures could provide better clarification.
The results of this study have implications on the long-term, secondary effects of poverty. Beyond the immediate hardships that impoverishment brings, it is suggested that greater long-term health consequences will follow. Though the effects are severe, they are not irreversible, and the researchers note that removing oneself from poverty will likely lead to reduced negative health effects in the long-term.