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Poverty: Not a Crime, but in Our DNA

How hardship makes children grow up faster -- literally.

In the long-running nature-versus-nurture debate, genes and chromosomes have been seen as ammunition for the nature camp: unchanging templates that determine whether we have red hair or can hit a jump shot. But over the past few years, research has begun chipping away at the idea that biology is an immutable determiner of destiny. Studies have found that environmental factors like diet, smoking, and even bullying can affect our DNA.

One of the latest additions to this research is a study that points to the possibility that a difficult childhood -- one marked by poverty, instability, and stress -- can effectively "age" the chromosomes of children as young as 9 years old, potentially making them more prone to bad health down the road.

Researchers, including senior author Daniel Notterman of Penn State University, looked at a group of 40 9-year-old African-American boys: half raised in privileged homes and half raised in disadvantaged environments. They found that the boys who grew up in more underprivileged settings had shortened telomeres, the DNA sequences that sit at the ends of chromosomes and protect them from damage. Researchers do not yet fully understand the relationship between shorter telomeres and bad health, but worn-down or frayed telomeres have been associated with aging and degenerative diseases, as well as cancer.

The implications of these findings are distressing not only in the context of U.S. inequality, but also in the context of impoverished or war-torn countries. Although a study of 40 American boys does not necessarily indicate that, say, frazzled chromosomes run rampant in countries like Somalia and Afghanistan, Notterman says it raises the possibility: "There are whole populations of people who will have adverse physical and health and well-being outcomes based on the effect of stress upon their physiological functioning." He adds that his research points to the need for early interventions to protect children's health.

The study, in other words, reinforces what organizations like UNICEF and Save the Children have been arguing for years: Lifting children out of poverty and protecting them from war cannot happen soon enough.

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In Box

Watch Yourself Clean

How to shake off those regrets -- no Lady Macbeth routine required.

Different cultures have long recognized the transcendent power of ritual hand-washing. From Shintoism to Judaism to Hinduism to Islam, major religious traditions require hand-washing before certain meals or prayers to ensure clean palms -- and a pure spirit.

Turns out, there really is some emotional value in a good wash. Research shows that even watching someone else wash his or her hands can make a person feel less guilty about past misdeeds.

Researchers at the University of Grenoble, the Catholic University of Louvain, and Ohio State University asked 65 adults to remember and write down a wrong they had committed against someone close to them. The participants were then asked to either use a wet wipe to clean their hands, watch a two-minute video of someone else using a wet wipe, or watch a two-minute video of a person typing. Afterward, they were asked to take a few tests to rate how guilty they felt and -- only if they wanted -- to help a Ph.D. student by completing questionnaires about local public transportation and returning them in three weeks.

Those who watched the typing video had the highest average guilt scores; those who washed their own hands scored the lowest. Meanwhile, participants whose hands had never gotten wet but who had watched others wash scored in between, demonstrating the power that even a vicarious cleansing has to send feelings of guilt down the drain. (To be sure, these participants' average guilt scores fell closer to those of the people who had watched the typing video.)

As for the questionnaires, those were meant to test what researchers call "prosocial behavior": actions that, in assisting others, help alleviate guilt. Participants who had washed their own hands returned the fewest questionnaires, those who had watched the typing video returned the most, and vicarious washers returned at a rate somewhere in between -- yet another indication that watching a hand-washing video made them feel that they had less for which to atone.

The power of even the briskest, most thorough scrub only goes so far when it comes to our emotions, of course. But the next time you forget to call your mother, a quick viewing of a hand-washing video on YouTube (they do exist) may just help you shake off those feelings of regret.

Illustration by Sébastien Thibault