Study finds link between neighborhood violence and biological stress in children

A study published in JAMA Pediatrics found exposure to violence is linked to persistent biological effects on children's stress response systems, which could negatively affect long-term health.

Examining a population of 85 children ages 5 to 16 years old in New Orleans, researchers compared cortisol levels and telomere length with violent crime rates, domestic violence rates and density of liquor stores, which are shown to be associated with neighborhood crime and assaults, according to the report. Researchers chose to track cortisol levels for the hormone's association with stress and telomeres for their association with lifespan and incidence of disease.

The results of the comparison showed variation in telomere length and cortisol functioning in children based on the neighborhood they lived in. Each of the three factors traced by the researchers — violent crime rates, domestic violence rates and density of liquor stores — was shown to have an inverse association with telomere length and a direct relationship with cortisol levels.

The authors note that the study is somewhat limited — it defines neighborhoods on administrative boundaries that may not reflect a child's actual neighborhood. It also notes the study may not apply to other demographic groups and did not include information on other possible factors on children's stress response systems, such as early life exposures.

Nonetheless, the authors conclude an association does exist, and the prevalence of violence in a neighborhood may have a significant effect on child health trajectories.


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