Neighborhood Poverty can Contribute to Health Problems Later in Life, but Attachment Style in Personal Relationships May Help
Neighborhood poverty and the challenging living conditions that can come with it—such as higher vigilance, lower trust, and environmental dangers–have been linked to an accumulation of stress that can contribute to cellular aging and health problems later in life. But research has suggested that close relationships can buffer stress, depending on how connected a person feels with their loved one.
A recent study supported by NIMHD examined the relationship between attachment experiences and accelerated cellular aging among African American young adults who grew up in impoverished rural neighborhoods. The researchers found that participants who had more secure attachment in romantic relationships had lower levels of cellular aging, which points to the importance of attachment to others for physical health.
Starting in 2001, the Strong African American Health Adults Project enrolled 667 5th graders from Black families in nine rural counties in Georgia with some of the highest poverty rates in the country. In 2009 and 2010, the researchers randomly selected a group of 500 of the initial participants, now young adults. These participants provided urine and blood samples. Then in 2017, when the average age of the participants was 27, the researchers collected blood from 388 of these participants to assess DNA methylation. In methylation, chemical tags called methyl groups attach to the DNA, turning genes on and off. DNA methylation patterns change with age, so they can be used to show how fast a person is aging. The researchers also surveyed participants who were in romantic relationships about their relationship and attachment style in 2015 and 2017.
The researchers measured the following characteristics:
- Adolescent neighborhood poverty
- Young adult allostatic load (allostatic load is the accumulation of exposure to chronic stress that affects a person’s body)
- Adult attachment style
- Accelerated cellular aging
To look at the poverty levels the participants experienced as adolescents, researchers calculated the percentage of people in the neighborhood living below the poverty line. When the participants were ages 19 and 20 in 2009 and 2010, researchers measured blood pressure, weight, height, body mass index (BMI), and overnight cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine—compounds linked to the stress response—in the urine. These measurements were used to determine allostatic load for each person.
When participants were ages 25 and 27 in 2015 and 2017, they responded to a series of prompts about their comfort levels with closeness and intimacy and their anxiety in relationships, such as “I try to avoid getting too close to my partner” and “I find that my partner[s] don’t want to get as close as I would like.” The researchers used this to determine their attachment style. At ages 20 and 27, participants provided blood samples, which the researchers used to assess cellular aging through DNA methylation.
The researchers found that exposure to neighborhood poverty was associated with allostatic loads by the time the participants were 20 years of age. Then researchers looked at how this was linked to cellular aging measured in participants several years later, along with their level of attachment avoidance.
For young adults who reported high attachment avoidance, allostatic load earlier in their life was linked to greater acceleration in cellular aging by the age of 27. But in contrast, participants with low levels of attachment avoidance did not show the same association between allostatic load and cellular aging. The study authors did not find significant interactions among anxiety in a romantic relationship, cellular aging, and allostatic load.
The authors reported that young adults with low attachment avoidance, who felt confident and trusting in their romantic relationships, did not have the same risk for accelerated cellular aging, even though they had experienced neighborhood poverty as children and signs of allostatic load. For young adults who had difficulty developing close relationships with their partners, the exposure to neighborhood poverty and later physiological symptoms of chronic stress were linked to greater changes in cellular aging between ages 20 and 27.
Previous studies have pointed to a link between attachment style and cellular aging. Research in infants in stressful situations suggests that the physiological response in infants who were seen to avoid attachment indicates that their bodies are working hard to regulate their distress. Over time, avoiding closeness in relationships could create a feedback loop that increases allostatic load and cellular aging.
This work adds to the growing evidence that relationships and attachment play an important role in physical health. The researchers posit that closer attachment styles may provide a protective effect against a background of stress and challenging environments for the young adults in this study. Further work could help researchers understand why more attached partnerships could mitigate the risk for accelerated cellular aging.
Ehrlich, K. B., Yu, T., Sadiq, A., & Brody, G. H. (2022). Neighborhood poverty, allostatic load, and changes in cellular aging in African American young adults: the moderating role of attachment. Attachment & Human Development, 24(3), 339–352. https://doi.org/10.1080/14616734.2021.1976934
Page updated March 27, 2023