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Posted 08.16.05

MU Study Shows Elevated Levels of Stress Hormone Can Lead to Illness

COLUMBIA, MO -- We've all heard the old adage, "sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me." Not so, according to a University of Missouri-Columbia researcher. Words can make us sick. When someone is faced with a physical threat, it is commonly known that stress hormone levels elevate to allow the body to face an attack, said Mark Flinn, associate professor of anthropology. Flinn found that the same scenario takes place when someone faces a verbal stressor, causing the likelihood of illness in the following week to triple.

Cortisol is a key hormone produced in response to physical and psychosocial stressors. The stress hormone allows the body to respond to changing environmental conditions by preparing it for specific short term demands. However, persistent activation of the stress response takes a physical toll, according to Flinn.

Related Links

Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology

"There appears to be a significant trade off. In order to mount the resources to deal with social problems, you are taking resources away from basic physical functions," Flinn said.

Flinn cites an example in "Hormones and the Human Family", recently published in the Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. A 12-year-old girl in his study was reprimanded by her grandmother; a saliva test showed elevated cortisol levels following the event. Three days after the stressor, the girl had symptoms of an upper respiratory infection with a slight fever.

"There is often a cycle of poor health," Flinn said. "The family environment is the key factor. Children raised in high-stress environments are at the greatest risk for health problems. A stressed out child will have chronically elevated cortisol levels and the physical toll can be inhibited growth, immune deficiency, cognitive impairment, delayed sexual maturity or psychological maladjustment."

Flinn's study found that children raised in a single mother household with little or no family involvement were at the greatest risk for abnormal cortisol profiles and associated health problems. He concludes that people in difficult social environments tend to be less healthy in comparison with their more fortunate peers.

Flinn has been monitoring the same children for the past 18 years, with more than 30,000 saliva samples and 100,000 health observations. Flinn's research is funded by the National Science Foundation. He says it is the most extensive study of the relation between stress and health in a child's everyday life.

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