The University Record, November 1, 1999

Health research center focus on emotional, physical toll of being poor

By Amy Reyes
News and Information Services

Social inequalities have been identified by public health advocates as one of the most pressing public health issues in this country. It is widely believed that they are a key cause of physical and mental health problems. A new U-M research center, funded by a $10 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will allow U-M researchers to delve deeper into research on the detrimental health effects of being poor.

“For the first time, we will bring together an interdisciplinary group of researchers who will present evidence that demonstrates consistent and strong associations between socio-economic status, psycho-social states and physical and mental health,” said George A. Kaplan, professor and chair of the Department of Epidemiology. “By concentrating on the role of economic factors, neighborhood characteristics and the biology of stress within a birth to old age framework, we hope to make a quantum leap in understanding inequalities in health and what can be done to reduce them.”

Kaplan, who has published more than 150 papers on this and related issues, will head the new research center called the Michigan Interdisciplinary Center on Social Inequalities, Mind and Body. Kaplan also is director of the Michigan Initiative on Inequalities in Health, a Universitywide network of researchers who specialize in inequalities in health issues. The Mind-Body research center will bring together researchers from public health, sociology, education, social work, public policy, medicine, psychology and economics. The center’s six research projects include:

Pathways to Child Health and Function

This research project will determine how decades of economic stress on parents affects where they live, the quality of education their children receive and how those factors—in combination with their home environment and schools—affect the health and development of their children. The study will be based on data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a longitudinal survey of a representative sample of U.S. men, women and children.

Pathobiology of Hopelessness, Depression, Socio-Economic Status and Cardiovascular Disease

This study will analyze data taken over a 12-year period to determine how socio-economic status, depression and feelings of hopelessness influence the glucocorticoid and serotonin levels in the brain, and how they can lead to increased risk of heart disease and other health problems.

Social Context, Social Inequality, Mind, Body and Health

Researchers will interview representative samples of families to examine the connection between neighborhood and community characteristics, economic status, race and ethnicity, attitudes and perceptions, and how those factors contribute to poor or better health.

Life Course Development, Psycho-Social Function and Cardiovascular Disease

How does one’s childhood influence behavior and physical and mental health in adulthood? Researchers will determine how birth weight, growth patterns through childhood and socio-economic conditions impact self-esteem, personal uncertainty, sense of coherence, hostility, depression, hopelessness, anger and other factors. Researchers also will examine how these developmental and psycho-social factors are biologically linked to cardiovascular disease and other health outcomes in adulthood.

Health of Women Under Economic Stress

This project will focus on the physical and emotional health effects of welfare reform on single mothers. It considers how successful or unsuccessful navigation through work-fare programs leads to better or worse health among low income mothers; how health problems influence their work success; and how community and governmental resources can contribute to better health among these mothers and their children.

Methodology and Biostatistics Core

The U-M, University of Chicago and other center researchers will work together to develop new ways of measuring and assessing the complex web of health determinants.

Faculty involved in the center’s work, in addition to Kaplan, are: Deborah Carr, assistant professor of sociology and assistant research scientist, Population Studies Center, Mary E. Corcoran, professor of political science, of women’s studies, of social work and of public policy and senior associate research scientist, Survey Research Center;

Sandra K. Danzinger, associate professor of social work; Susan A. Everson, assistant research scientist, epidemiology; Sheila Gahagan, clinical associate professor of pediatrics and communicable diseases and assistant research scientist, Center for Human Growth and Development;

Sandra Hofferth, senior research scientist, Survey Research Center, and adjunct professor of sociology; James S. House, director and senior research scientist, Survey Research Center, professor of sociology, research scientist, epidemiology, and faculty associate, Institute of Gerontology,

Sherman James, the John P. Kirscht Collegiate Professor of Public Health, director, Center for Research on Ethnicity, Culture and Health, professor of epidemiology and senior research scientist, Survey Research Center; John W. Lynch, assistant research scientist, epidemiology, and adjunct assistant research scientist, Survey Research Center;

Jeffery Morenoff, faculty associate, Survey Research Center; Randy Nesse, faculty associate, Research Center for Group Dynamics and Survey Research Center, and professor of psychiatry; Stephen Raudenbush, professor of education and senior research scientist, Survey Research Center;

Trivellore E. Raghunathan, senior associate research scientist, Survey Research Center, and associate professor, Department of Biostatistics; Kristine Siefert, professor of social work and director, Research Center on Poverty, Risk and Mental Health; David R. Williams, professor of sociology and senior research scientist, Survey Research Center; and Elizabeth Young, professor of psychiatry, research scientist, Reproductive Sciences Program, and senior research scientist, Mental Health Research Institute and Department of Psychiatry.

A congressional mandate directed the Office of the Behavioral and Social Sciences Research to lead efforts at NIH to develop a mind-body initiative. Congress designated more than $60 million to be granted over the next five years for the programs. The University of Pittsburgh/Carnegie Mellon University, University of Wisconsin, University of Miami and Ohio State University also received funding.