Why are babies born into poverty more likely to develop chronic disease?

Research has shown that children born into poverty are more likely to develop chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease and obesity, but why this occurs is unclear.

Now, three researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee are testing one hypothesis – that babies born to mothers who experience socioeconomic disadvantage during pregnancy are more likely to have elevated levels of inflammation at birth.

Three people stand and pose for a photo.
Amanda Simanek (clockwise from front), Cheng Zheng and Helen Meier, all assistant professors in the Zilber School of Public Health, have a grant to study whether being born into poverty can cause physical changes that predispose infants to chronic disease during their lives. (UWM Photo/Pete Amland)

Inflammation, while a necessary part of the body’s immune response to infection, can contribute to the development of chronic conditions, if elevated over time.

Amanda Simanek, Helen Meier and Cheng Zheng, faculty members at UWM’s Zilber School of Public Health, are investigating the question, backed by a two-year, $450,000 grant from the National Institutes of Minority Health and Health Disparities.

To carry out this study, the investigators have the unique opportunity to linkexisting birth certificate and census data to archived blood samples collected by the Michigan Newborn Screening program, a population-based sample of 1,000 babies at birth.

The researchers also want to know if adverse birth outcomes, such as pre-term birth or underweight babies, which are more common among women living in poverty, may correlate to permanent changes to the baby’s immune function that happen during the prenatal period.

These changes may lead them to have a stronger inflammatory response and predispose them to chronic disease.

“We hope to shed light on a novel pathway by which the adverse effects of poverty on chronic disease may be transmitted across generations,” said Simanek.

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