I moderated a panel today at a wonderful conference. The title of the conference was Biological Consequences of Chronic Exposures to Social and Economic Disadvantages. My panel was the one on infant and early childhood. The speakers were all scientists–never mind how I, a social scientist got involved, anyway, the talks were spectacular.
Dr.Z. who is in charge of our “marble palace” nutrition center, gave a fascinating talk on DNA. Did you know that it is possible, to turn on and turn off DNA? Did you know that a study in the Netherlands of men who had experienced hunger due to poverty when they were 9-12 still had physical effects for their grandsons?
I am not sure if I came away from this conference more optimistic or more pessimistic about health care and health in America. I asked one of my colleagues, since my interest in health disparities is fairly recent, only stretching back about six years, how long the medical and public health communities have known about the disparities in health care and health outcomes caused by poverty, race and discrimination. He told me he started graduate school in 1977 and the topic was already old. One of the other professors at my table who I did not know reminded me that DuBois had written about it in the 19th century!
If we have known all along that being a minority or a poor white has implications for not only health access, but health, why have we not done anything to change it? It seems the same rhetoric is being used today to talk about health disparities as what DuBois said.
The discussion of nutrition was particularly engaging. Did you know that if the mother of some mice are fed a certain diet the babies come out yellow and fat and develop diabetes and other diseases? If the mothers are fed a diet rich in certain nutrients like choline ( in eggs and milk) then their babies come out brown and slender. The fat mice pretty much stay fat and the thin mice pretty much stay slender. So if you are fat or slender it might have been what your mother ate, or did not eat.
Even more fascinating was the discussion of what stress does to health. One psychologist’s research is on black youth and parenting. I do not need to remind you what I think of the “beat em and yell at em and keep em in line” philosophy of many black parents. I will tell you that his research indicates that some children exposed to such tactics develop antisocial behaviors. They fail to develop fear responses and do not recognize them in others, ergo they take risks, are prone to violence and lack empathy, so not only what your parents eat impacts your behavior and health, also how they treat you, especially between birth and four impacts how you turn out and your health.
Fascinating stuff, fun working on a college campus, but my brain got sore by the time I had to learn about epigenetics and some other terms I was unfamiliar with. I guess the entire conference left me with several conclusions;
1) DNA can be and probably will be in the near future, manipulated so that certain traits are turned on and others are turned off
2) Effects of poverty in the womb may have not only life long effects, but may have generational effects
3) The first four years of life are crucial, you might almost say the die is cast in most cases
4) Developing more brain cells through proper nutrition in the womb may keep you from having dementia in old age, you may have more to give up–we evidently all lose brain cells as we age. BTW one of the ways to keep from losing your brain cells as you age is to do cross-word puzzles! I was delighted to hear this, I play Words with Friends and have at least six Scrabble games going on my phone all the time.
5) Racism and discrimination are still strong factors in health for minorities in general and blacks in particular–this has not changed substantially in fifty plus years
6) Breast feeding is much, much better for babies than bottle feeding
7) What your mother feeds you as a toddler and the eating behaviors she models for you will probably determine what you look like
8) Mama genes and daddy genes fight in the womb. For example daddy genes want to make bigger babies, mama genes opt for smaller babies–smart mama genes. Wonder if daddy genes advocate for big televisions and leaving the toilet seat up?
Finally what I learned is that learning is amazing fun. I am certainly no expert on health disparities, genetics, DNA or nutrition, but at least I now know enough to be terrified about what is going to happen to human beings if we keep eating what we eat, engaging in racism and discrimination and do not understand child development.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing!