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The Ferguson Effect on Our Great-Grandchildren

Gene expressions in our DNA - Because of epigenetics, whenever there's war, violence, poverty, famine or just about any other stressful situation, not only are our bodies changing, but those of future generations will, too. (Photo: AJ Cann)

A few weeks ago, Congressman Paul Ryan released his latest proposal for tackling America’s poverty epidemic.

Unfortunately, the plan does very little to combat poverty in our country, and instead, continues the devastating austerity policies that Ryan himself helped to create.

Thanks to those policies, entire communities across America are underwater and struggling to survive in tough economic times.

One of those communities is Ferguson, Missouri.

While that community continues to protest the police shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown, it’s also dealing with crippling poverty.

An analysis by Elizabeth Kneebone, an economic scholar with the Brookings Institution, found that unemployment in Ferguson more than doubled between 2000 and 2012.

The analysis also found that more than a quarter of Ferguson households had incomes below the federal poverty line of $23,492 in 2012.

So, not only are the people of Ferguson dealing with the traumatic death of Michael Brown and the resulting violent reactions to that death, they’re also dealing with debilitating poverty.

And unfortunately, both of those experiences are likely to stick with the Ferguson community for decades to come, thanks to something called epigenetics.

Epigenetics is a field of science that studies how external forces and stressors, including things like poverty, hunger and violence can cause the human body to change the way certain genes are expressed, which control the way our body reacts to things.

In other words, the science of epigenetics says that life events can alter our DNA.

Some of those changes can be partly beneficial. For instance, if you’re in a high-stress environment, your body can “turn on” genes meant to deal with high stress situations. But it could come with the trade-off a shorter lifespan.

The real problem is that once those genes are turned on or off, that new situation becomes part of your personal genome, and can be passed on to future generations, which are forced to deal with the consequences.

For example, a study by researchers at University College London’s Institute of Child Health found that, thanks to epigenetics, children whose parents and grandparents were born into poverty can, themselves, carry the scars of that past poverty with them for the rest of their lives. That’s because children born to families who’ve lived generations in poverty inherit genes configured to help them survive that poverty, but as the researchers pointed out, turning those genes on can make those children more susceptible to health conditions like heart disease, diabetes and cancer when they’re adults.

And epigenetic changes – genetic changes caused by the circumstances of life – have previously been linked to a variety of mental disorders too, including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

But it’s not just exposure to poverty than can alter DNA for generations to come.

Exposure to tobacco does it, as does exposure to violence and the stress that comes with it.

Researchers with the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at the Mount Sinai Medical Centre in New York City conducted a study to see how the violence and stress of 9/11 would affect the children of the estimated 1,700 pregnant women who were directly exposed to the World Trade Center attacks.

Shortly after the attacks, researchers at Mount Sinai studied 38 pregnant women who were at or near the World Trade Center on 9/11, some of whom had developed PTSD.

They took samples of saliva from the women, and measured the levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in their bodies. Higher levels of cortisol in the body mean more stress, and vice versa.

The researchers found that the women with PTSD had significantly lower levels of cortisol in their saliva than women who were exposed to the attacks, but who did not develop PTSD.

Around a year later, the researchers measured the levels of cortisol in the newborn children, and found that those born to mothers who had PTSD as a result of 9/11 had lower levels, than those born to mothers who were PTSD-free.

Basically, the researchers found that the children born of moms who were traumatized by the events of 9/11 were literally living with the results of their mothers’ pain and trauma.

So, not only can our life experiences alter our genetic make-up, they can alter the genetic make-up of our offspring, and, as some studies have shown, even our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Think about that.

Because of epigenetics, whenever there’s war, violence, poverty, famine or just about any other stressful situation, not only are our bodies changing, but those of future generations will, too.

That’s why it’s so important that we do everything possible to protect future generations by making the world work well today.

For example, we must confront America’s racism and poverty epidemics head-on and start building a larger and more inclusive middle class, so that communities like Ferguson can leave the stress of poverty behind.

At the same time, we need to be creating a safer world, free of major stressors like wars, violence, and militarized police occupations.

Basically, we need to be working towards a more nurturing society.

According to the American Psychological Association, one-third of Americans suffer from extreme stress, whether it’s from exposure to traumatic events like 9/11, or exposure to a life of poverty.

It’s time for our country to stop stressing out, and start protecting the lives of generations to come.

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