A major study has found that childhood poverty is linked to a greater risk of developing diabetes in the future, with researchers saying their findings start to answer “important public health questions”.

After examine the health data of 342 Black Americans from a 20-year period, the team found that those who lived in poverty from age 11 to 18 and were pessimistic about their future experienced accelerated aging in their immune cells and insulin resistance aged 25 to 29.

The longer they lived in poverty as children and young people, the more they were at risk of insulin resistance and diabetes in later life.

First author Professor Allen W. Barton, from the human development and family studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said: “Once we found some compelling evidence that family poverty during childhood was associated with participants’ insulin resistance in their late 20s, we looked at immune cell aging as a possible mediator, something that transmits the effect.

“And we found support for that. Immune cell aging was a pathway, a mechanism through which poverty was associated with insulin resistance.”

He went on to say: “It’s a tremendous data set and can begin to answer some important public health questions, shed light on some of these racial disparities and help find ways to mitigate them.”

Those involved in the study lived in rural Georgia, an area of America with one of the highest rates of poverty in the country.

The data was taken from the Strong African American Families Healthy Adult Project (SHAPE), which began collecting data from 667 Black 10 and 11-year-olds and their families in 2001.

Blood samples were used to compare participants’ biological age with their chronological age, while income details were used to determine their families’ poverty status.

As they grew up, the young people were asked how likely they thought it was that they would go to college or secure a well-paid job.

At age 19-20, the researchers looked at some of the participants’ DNA methylation, a process linked to aging that impacts gene function.

The study supports previous theories that higher rates of conditions like diabetes that are seen amongst Black adults and those on lower incomes could be linked to their childhood experiences.

Links were also seen between teenagers’ beliefs about their future and immune cell aging.

Professor Barton said more research into this area was needed following the publication of this latest study.

The study has been published in the journal Child Development.

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