Research shows that adults who spend as few as 4 years in economic hardship could be at risk of accelerated aging in comparison with adults who do not experience periods of poverty.
The term accelerated aging describes people who are physically less capable at an earlier age than others at the same life stage. These people may also have poorer cognitive function and higher levels of inflammatory markers in their blood.
An aging population, particularly in western societies, means that healthcare costs disproportionately affect older adults. This phenomenon has led to a drive-in promoting healthy aging.
As such, researchers from the Department of Public Health at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark conducted a study to investigate whether late-middle-aged adults are adversely affected by economic hardship compared with adults of the same age who are not experiencing financial problems.
Results appear in the European Journal of Ageing.
The benchmark for economic hardship in this study included people with relatively low income. In this case, those with incomes 60% less than the national average across 22 years.
The researchers studied 5,575 adults in the late-middle-aged population, of whom 18% experienced poverty in the period 1987-2008. The team, which was led by Rikke Lund, studied aging by analyzing both physical and cognitive function, including chair rise, grip strength, jump, and balance.
The researchers found that people who have lived in relative poverty for 4 years or more did not perform as well as the people who have never experienced financial hardship. They also found that those living with financial issues had heightened levels of inflammatory markers in their blood.
Their findings suggest that moving out of economic hardship protects against accelerated aging and that increasing probability of economic hardship results in the opposite and leads to a rise in blood CRP levels.
Interestingly, experiencing poverty earlier in life for a shorter period did not indicate accelerated aging. However, entering a period of financial difficulties in later life as a result of job loss was a significant contributing factor.
This suggests that financial hardship during early life due to being in higher education or taking on short term contract jobs is not as stressful as poverty in later life. It also suggests that accelerated aging could be time sensitive.
This study is in line with other studies that have also demonstrated inverse associations between financial hardship and physical capability, as well as self-reported cognitive difficulties.
However, these results do conflict with one study, which indicates that a person’s perception of their economic hardship is a more important indicator of health than how much money they have.
This study does have some limitations, however. For example, the researchers did not consider any potential confounding factors that may lead to adverse aging. These factors include the development of diseases not associated with poverty but which may be life-limiting or accelerate aging.
Furthermore, this study does not analyze populations of adults from a variety of societies. The research focused only on people in Denmark and is, therefore, not reflective of the global outlook.
In conclusion, the evidence presented in this study shows that just a few years of financial hardship across the adult life course has no associations with early aging. However, people who experience economic difficulties for 4 or more years have poorer physical capability, cognitive function, and higher inflammatory levels in midlife.
“Early aging also means more treatment at an earlier age, and it is a burden both to the individual and the society. With our results, we show that poor finances are a strong indicator of early aging — this knowledge can be used to prevent the problems.”
The authors suggest that preventive initiatives that focus on reducing the burden of sustained economic hardship may help decrease the rates of accelerated aging in adults.