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J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2008 Jul;63(4):S201-S210.

Effects of poverty and family stress over three decades on the functional status of older African American women.

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  • 1Department of Health Policy and Management, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 624 N. Broadway, Baltimore, MD 21205, USA.



The purpose of this study was to investigate the cumulative effects of poverty and family stressors to the later life functional status of African American women.


We used longitudinal data covering a 30-year period for a cohort of 553 African American women with common life experiences. Interviews were conducted with these women as young mothers, as mothers of adolescents, and in early old age (two thirds aged 60+). We classified women as high, usual, or low functioning by using physical and mental health indicators. We examined both timing and duration of poverty and family stressors.


Initially these women were largely healthy, but health declines were steeper and occurred earlier for those who were low functioning in later life. Persistent poverty was detrimental to functioning at older ages, as was persistent family stress. Women who left poverty early did not differ in later life functioning from women who were never poor.


Despite similar earlier life circumstances and health, there was substantial heterogeneity in functioning in early old age. Long-term poverty and family stress were strongly associated with being low functioning. Early poverty and transient family problems did not have lasting health effects, underscoring the plasticity of human development and the importance of interventions that can alter life course trajectories.

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