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How financial hardship accelerates ageing

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AGEING … CREDIT: Age International

*Employer kindness can improve performance, mental health, researchers find
Research shows that adults who spend as few as four 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 ageing 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.

Scientists associate high detection of markers of inflammation, such as C-reactive protein (CRP) and IL-6, with many conditions, including infection and cancer.

An ageing population, particularly in western societies, means that healthcare costs disproportionately affect older adults. This phenomenon has led to a drive-in promoting healthy ageing.

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 appeared 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 per cent less than the national average across 22 years.

The researchers studied 5,575 adults in the late-middle-aged population, of whom 18 per cent experienced poverty in the period 1987-2008. The team, which was led by Rikke Lund, studied ageing by analysing 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.

The study’s significance and limitations
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 ageing.

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.

Meanwhile, if pay raises and reduced hours are not options at the moment for employers, there are other ways to help improve employees’ mental health and performance — including small gestures of kindness.

A study from Penn State University, in State College, PA, found that a simple gesture of kindness from employers, in the form of fresh fruit added to employees’ daily lunches, was a morale booster and improved employees’ mental health.

The researchers summarised their findings in the International Journal of Occupational Safety and Ergonomics.

“An ultimate solution to improve worker performance and health could be big pay raises or reduced workloads, but when those solutions aren’t feasible, we found that even small offerings can make a big difference,” says Bu Zhong, Ph.D., an associate professor of journalism at Penn State and the first author of the paper.

For this study, an international team of researchers decided to focus on bus drivers in China, whose jobs are particularly stressful, both mentally and physically.

This is due to erratic working hours, irregular mealtimes, continuous whole-body vibration from the buses, and the overall sedentary nature of the job.

As part of the experiment, employers gave 86 participants fresh fruit in their regular lunches, which the employers provide and which ordinarily do not include fruit.

The increased cost of the fruit, either an apple or banana in each lunch, was the equivalent of 73 cents per meal.

To determine how the fruit affected the participants’ mental health, the researchers distributed surveys to each bus driver at various points throughout the experiment.

The first surveys went out one week before the experiment began. The researchers distributed the second round of surveys in the middle of the three-week experiment and the final round one week after the experiment had finished.

To find out how the fruit had affected the bus drivers, the researchers evaluated depression with a questionnaire developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

They also assessed the participants’ confidence in completing tasks and reaching specific goals, using the General Self-Efficacy Scale.

The researchers found that depression in participants had improved by the end of the experiment, compared with its start. Responses also indicated that self-efficacy was quite a bit higher in the middle of the study period than at its end.

Kindness and work-related stress
Work-related stress can have a big impact on mental and physical health. Short term effects of stress can include headaches, shallow breathing, sleeping troubles, anxiety, and an upset stomach.

If stress lasts for a longer period, it can become chronic and lead to more significant health problems, including heart disease, back pain, depression, muscle aches and other pains that do not go away, and a weakened immune system.

In addition, stress can negatively impact focus and increase the chances that mistakes are made. It can also impair emotions and behavior.

While there are ways to manage workplace stress, it can be extremely difficult to do so, depending on the nature of a person’s job.

Workplace stress can ramp up when employees have to complete tasks in a short amount of time or do not have a certain amount of control over their work as a whole.

The study’s lead author says that while the small gesture in the research may seem insignificant, the demonstration of kindness on the part of the employer went a long way toward countering some of the constant stress that the bus drivers experienced as part of their job.

“This research suggests that employees can be sensitive to any improvement at the workplace. […] Before an ultimate solution is possible, some small steps can make a difference — one apple at a time.”


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