Glynis Board Published

WVU Public Health Dialogue: Does Being Poor Mean Being Sick?


Stress. We all live with it, but at what point does it become toxic? When do social pressures turn from a healthy challenge to a source of poison? These are some of the ideas turned over in a public health dialogue at West Virginia University last week that explored the “social determinants of health.” Guest-speaker Dr. Paula Braveman spoke about how social factors in our lives play a role in our health.

“We’re in a very different place talking about the social determinants of health than we were ten years ago, twenty years ago even,” Braveman said. She explained, science and our growing understanding of human bodily processes is making it easier to gain insights into the biological effects of environmental factors like income and social status.

“That’s a huge leap to be able not to just say, ‘we think,’ but, ‘this is the way things work.’ We can trace the biology of…social determinants of health.”

Good Stress vs. Bad Stress

Braveman knows a lot about stress. She points out that some kinds of stress actually promote health. The kind of stress we feel when we are challenged, when we know overcoming the challenge is within our reach—that stress, Braveman says is good for us.

Then there’s “toxic” stress which is when perpetual anxiety invades your brain and body, changing your chemistry, and making you more susceptible to problems like diabetes, depression, cancer, and heart disease.

All common in West Virginia.

Braveman explains that chronic “toxic” stress is the kind you experience when your child gets sick and your thankless, minimum-wage job gives you no leeway to be able to stay home and be with that child, and your car is out of inspection and in need of new tires, and your laid-off husband has a drinking problem. When that life is normal, Braveman says, in addition to making you more predisposed to certain illnesses, the constant stress deregulates body including the immune system, so you just get sick more often.

The Fix

No one has come up with any quick fix to solving these kinds of scenarios, or an easy way to interrupt the cycles of poverty that are often the side effect. But Braveman points out two important steps that could quickly create waves of positive change:

  • Raise minimum wage – providing the poorest with more resources
  • Invest in childcare – an investment in the future of society

Braveman says building resiliency to rise above chaos in our communities takes concerted and organized efforts on the part of both individuals and policy-makers alike. Access to good nutrition, education, community, and transportation are all factors that play a role as much as a good job and clean water and air. And as for individuals, Braveman says, support groups are important. People need to know that they aren’t struggling alone in order to better able to cope.

** Dr. Braveman’s was the third in a series of public health dialogues being hosted at West Virginia University. The final talk this year is December fifth. It’s about a community-based drug overdose prevention program. The talks are free and open to the public.