Childhood poverty and health: cumulative risk exposure and stress dysregulation

Psychol Sci. 2007 Nov;18(11):953-7. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.02008.x.


A massive literature documents the inverse association between poverty or low socioeconomic status and health, but little is known about the mechanisms underlying this robust relation. We examined longitudinal relations between duration of poverty exposure since birth, cumulative risk exposure, and physiological stress in two hundred seven 13-year-olds. Chronic stress was assessed by basal blood pressure and overnight cortisol levels; stress regulation was assessed by cardiovascular reactivity to a standard acute stressor and recovery after exposure to this stressor. Cumulative risk exposure was measured by multiple physical (e.g., substandard housing) and social (e.g., family turmoil) risk factors. The greater the number of years spent living in poverty, the more elevated was overnight cortisol and the more dysregulated was the cardiovascular response (i.e., muted reactivity). Cardiovascular recovery was not affected by duration of poverty exposure. Unlike the duration of poverty exposure, concurrent poverty (i.e., during adolescence) did not affect these physiological stress outcomes. The effects of childhood poverty on stress dysregulation are largely explained by cumulative risk exposure accompanying childhood poverty.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Child
  • Female
  • Health Status*
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / analysis
  • Male
  • Poverty*
  • Risk-Taking*
  • Saliva / chemistry
  • Social Control, Informal
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Stress, Psychological / epidemiology*
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology*


  • Hydrocortisone