MacArthur has awarded a $4.8 million grant to the University of California at San Francisco to support the Research Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health, which is based at the university. 

The funds will be used over the course of four years to identify pathways by which socioeconomic factors "get under the skin" to influence health. A central focus of the network is the biological cost of adaptation to social and environmental stresses associated with lower socioeconomic status.

The network, which was established four years ago, is led by Professor Nancy Adler. It is one of nine research networks currently supported by the Foundation on topics related to human and community development. The research networks are interdisciplinary in nature, with members drawn from institutions and organizations throughout the nation. The Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health has members from the fields of psychology, psychoimmunology, medicine, clinical epidemiology, neuroscience, biostatistics, and economics. (List of members follows.)

During its initial four-year period, the network developed the concept of allostatic load, which refers to the wear and tear on the body and brain that results from repeated demands on physiological systems as they adapt to stress. Such demands include fear and other responses to crisis, as well as the day-to-day stresses associated with social disadvantage, including discrimination. The network will investigate whether these factors predispose individuals to disease because of their impact on the body's systems.

The network's approach and findings to date suggest that it is necessary to look both within the healthcare system and beyond it in order to improve health outcomes. This work focuses on understanding how other policy arenas (e.g., housing, education, and the workplace) influence health outcomes in this country and why a focus on access and expenditures does not provide a complete picture.

"Research has shown there is a direct relationship between socioeconomic status and health at all levels of income, but the reasons for these linkages are poorly understood," said Jonathan Fanton, President of the MacArthur Foundation. "Research has shown that the health of individuals is dependent upon factors beyond income level, education and access to health care. This research is designed to show how, and to what extent, environmental and psychological factors build up over time to negatively influence an individual's health."

"We are pleased to get funding from the MacArthur Foundation to continue the network's research," said Nancy Adler, the director of the network and a professor at the University of California at San Francisco. "By allowing us to cut across academic disciplines and tap into the knowledge of a broad range of experts, the network has been extremely effective in developing innovative approaches to understanding the complex relationship between socioeconomic status and health."

The research network's efforts will be linked with three major studies that provide data on the social, psychological, and biological histories of large groups over an extended period of time. The length and scale of the three studies will allow the network to consider how psychological responses and allostatic load may alter the performance of the body's biological systems.

Network collaboration with the three studies includes:

  • Adding new psychosocial and biological measures to the 15-year follow-up of the CARDIA study, a multi-site, longitudinal project funded by the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, which has been examining the development of cardiovascular risk factors among African-Americans and Whites.
  • Adding new measures to data collected in the Whitehall Study of British Civil Servants, a longitudinal study that has shown a persistent influence of occupational status on health well into old age.
  • Initiating a large-scale study of the work environment and health of employees in a number of industrial plants of a large corporation across the country.

The Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health is funded by the MacArthur Foundation's Program on Human and Community Development.

 

Health, Policy, Research