African American adolescents growing up in conditions of worsening poverty are more likely than other kids to have risk factors for chronic illnesses - but strong emotional support from caretakers seems to offset the effects of the stressful environmental, researchers found.

“That level of emotional support from that social network completely protected those young people from having any biological changes,” said Gene Brody of the University of Georgia in Athens, the study’s lead author.

It's been theorized that children and teens living in high poverty areas will also have more risk factors for chronic conditions like heart disease and stroke, Brody and his colleagues write in Pediatrics.

Past research, mostly on adults, has found that the chronic psychological and physical stresses of poverty, including frequent exposure to violence, produce chronically elevated stress hormones, which in turn exert wear and tear on the body that harms health (see Reuters article of October 30, 2013, here: reut.rs/1wNfMNk).

But little research has tested that idea among children or looked at what happens when they grow up in neighborhoods where poverty rates change over the course of their childhood, the study team notes.

For the new study, the researchers took a measure of overall health known as allostatic load from 420 African American 19-year-olds who participated in annual checkups since 2000-2001, when they were 11 years old.

Allostatic load is the total physical toll on the body of chronic stress, and it can be gauged with measures of blood pressure, body mass and levels of certain compounds like the stress hormone cortisol found in urine.

“By adding them together, they turn out to be a fairly good indicator that those people will go on to develop one of the chronic diseases of aging,” Brody told Reuters Health.

Additionally, the researchers collected data on economic conditions in the children's neighborhoods, and on interactions between the children and their caregivers to determine the amount of emotional support kids received.

From the beginning of the study 10 years earlier, the researchers found that 284 of the original 420 kids had remained in the same 41 areas. The number of households in those areas living in poverty had increased from about 22 percent in 2000 to about 25 percent in 2010.

Overall, the teens living in areas with worsening poverty during the study had the highest allostatic load, which put them at greatest risk for chronic diseases later in life.

The link held even after the researchers accounted for factors like individual habits and family income that could influence the child's health.

Having strong emotional support during adolescence appeared to protect the participants from any possible effects from living in areas with worsening poverty, however.

The allostatic scores of adolescents who grew up in areas of worsening poverty without strong emotional support were about double that of those with emotional support, Brody said.

“We did not find effects on allostatic load for living in increasing levels of poverty when youths had a very supportive social network,” he said. “Meaning they had a network of parents, friends and community mentors who could offer them support, problem solving and guidance for any number of the challenges that life presents.”

The researchers cannot explain why living in areas of worsening poverty is linked to an increased health risk. They write that it could be a combination of factors, including exposure to crime, violence, drug use and the lack of an environment that promotes healthy living.

Brody said emotional support may protect against the negative effects of increasing poverty by offering a measure of empowerment to cope with problems.

“In the day to day course of life, as challenges come up, these young people have access to people who will listen to their concerns and help find solutions to the challenges they face,” he said.

Brody said an important area of research is how to effectively deploy prevention programs that will shield adolescents from the possible negative effects of worsening poverty.

“We think we can have a positive effect on their health,” he said.