Cardiovascular disease continues to be the largest cause of mortality disparities. These health disparities may be exacerbated by parental incarceration, according to recent research from the University of Chicago Medicine. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are traumatic events that can have long-term impacts on one’s physical and mental health. Parental figure incarceration is an ACE that disproportionately affects underserved groups, but little is known about its physical effects.
“There was very little data on its association with cardiovascular risks,” said Elizabeth Tung, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine at UChicago and the lead author on the study. “We set out to fill that gap in understanding.”
Tung pointed out that these numbers reflect the high rates of incarceration throughout the 1980s and 1990s when the study’s participants were under the age of 18. These individuals had greater levels of high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP), an indicator of inflammation that medical professionals use to calculate the risk of future cardiac events, than their peers and were more likely than their peers to acquire hypertension as adults.
When the researchers looked at additional cardiovascular risk indicators such as diabetes, hyperlipidemia, and heart disease, they found no association between parental incarceration and those conditions. Tung noted that whereas hypertension often appears in young adulthood — the age group addressed in this study – these markers are more likely to appear in middle age and beyond.
“From a societal perspective, it’s important to consider our approach to incarceration in the U.S. and how racial disparities in incarceration may be contributing to health disparities,” said Tung. She pointed out that there are multiple areas where resources can prove helpful to families affected by incarceration.
Legal aid partners can provide legal support and also connect families to social services and public benefits, which may in turn be able to address some of the economic insecurities that often arise. On the healthcare side, clinicians can offer family counselling and mental health resources to affected children.
The non-medical elements that affect health outcomes, known as social determinants of health, have drawn the attention of policy and healthcare organisations alike.
In order to inform patient care, clinicians who screen for social determinants of health frequently inquire about issues like housing and food insecurity.
Tung said the findings of her study should compel medical professionals to consider the effects of parental incarceration, which, regrettably, is just as common as other social determinants of health. She admitted that, given the stigma now attached to jail, this line of inquiry would be less well received.
“As a society, we have a responsibility to destigmatize parental incarceration to remove shame-based pressures and instead address these issues with a focus on public health rather than criminality,” said Tung.