What North Carolina and Pennsylvania Families Are Teaching Us About Stress and Our Environment

A small sample of saliva can hold a treasure trove of data: levels of the “stress hormone” cortisol, exposure to secondhand smoke, and even a person’s DNA. When combined with information about a child’s home, school, and neighborhood, these measures can unlock an understanding about how stress and other environmental factors influence children’s health.

Experiences early in life can have long-lasting health effects. These experiences include exposure to a range of factors, from air pollution and chemicals, to societal factors such as stress, to individual behaviors like sleep and diet.

Since 2003, the Family Life Project – a collaboration between NYU, UNC Chapel Hill, and Penn State – has been following a sample of 1,292 children and their families living in rural counties in Pennsylvania and North Carolina with high poverty rates. The longitudinal study has worked to investigate how stress early in life, such as violence in the home, affects children’s brain development.

The Family Life Project has resulted in dozens of peer-reviewed publications, yielding important findings on environmental exposures. For example, the researchers found that infants exposed to higher levels of smoking during pregnancy are less happy and more irritable, and higher levels of cortisol (a sign of stress) in young children is associated with lower cognitive abilities. In addition, the researchers found that exposure to verbal and physical aggression between parents may hurt a child’s ability to identify and control emotions.

Now, the Family Life Project is part of larger effort to better understand how environmental factors influences children’s health: the National Institutes of Health’s Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) program. Last fall, the NIH awarded Clancy Blair, professor of applied psychology at NYU Steinhardt and a Family Life Project researcher, a $5.9 million ECHO grant to investigate ways in which early environmental exposures – psychosocial as well as chemical – affect children.

Building on the existing knowledge from the Family Life Project, the researchers are expanding their scope to look at obesity risk and children’s exposure to chemicals, including lead.

An innovative new measure the researchers are using is GPS data, which allows them to evaluate children’s exposure to toxicants and pollutants in locations like their homes, schools, or playgrounds. Precise, location-based data from sources like the Environmental Protection Agency and Census Bureau create new possibilities for better understanding the environments in which these children and their families live.

Photo: alex yosifov