Poverty through a Microscope
Telomeres and Dendrites.
I'm going to break down a little bit of science jargon here: telomeres are the protective shield of your DNA; dendrites are the branches of neurons in your brain. When functioning healthfully, these two components of the human body assist in keeping us alive and well. Dendrites are the pathways through which nerve impulse signals are transmitted. Telomeres are a sheath around the genetic material of our DNA, much like the ends of your shoelaces, it keeping the fabric from unraveling.
As we age, the telomeres in our bodies shorten. For some it happens quicker than others, often due to poor nutrition and chronic stress. Nutrition is a major component to the health of telomeres; sugars, preservatives, trans fats, and processed foods can damage the telomeres. The more telomeres are damaged, the more vulnerable and exposed the genetic material becomes.
The telomeres of children living in poverty actually shorten much earlier in life -- as young as nine according to a study released in the spring of 2014. This results in premature aging, and increased risk of physical illness such as diabetes, cardiac and pulmonary disease.
Dendrites, the pathways of information processing in the brain, develop "spines" in response to trauma, psychological trauma. Imagine a tree with millions of thin branches, that's what dendrites look like. Essentially, the inside of your skull is like a forest wilderness. Now, imagine the thorns of a rose stem. Those hooks will actually form inside the branches of your mind's endings, on the dendrites themselves. This means that if something were to "trigger" a person who has suffered trauma (whether or not they're diagnosed with PTSD), the dendrites associated with their trauma(s), would be aggravated -- causing a relapse. For people who experience it, it can feel like returning to the state of mind they were in when the trauma first occurred, reliving associated sensations (not necessarily whole memories, though that too is possible) over again. Over time, if the dendrite spurs go untreated, the effect can create degeneration in development and social wellness.
Here is where the link between poverty and poor health is illuminated. Children living in low-income housing in urban areas are much more likely to be exposed to violence to to proximity. To be affected by trauma, one does not have to be the victim in an incident. Witnessing violence, whether seen or heard, can cause the manifestation of dendrite spurs. The chronic stress can shorten telomeres drastically. In disadvantaged environments and food deserts, it can be difficult to access fresh, whole foods. This only contributes to poor nutrition, and subsequently the poor health, of people living with the stress of being poor.
Where does this leave us? If nutrition plays a vital role in the health of telomeres (and thus one's overall health), how can children and adults in food deserts access fresh food? And if dendrites have the capacity to alter their pathways (which looks more like growing and strengthening new dendrites while simultaneously shrinking the bandwidth of others) how can those who have been traumatized begin to reorient their neuroplasticity to reduce the negative effects of their conditioning?