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Originally published Sunday, August 11, 2013 at 8:05 PM

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Awareness can help us see factors that shape our lives

Recent studies offer more insight into the many factors that influence health and behavior.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Growing a person in an urban, technological society is a hard business that requires study and help from the sciences to sort out what’s happening, why and what to do about it.

I picked up some insights over the past couple of weeks into factors that can affect how people turn out.

For instance, some stressed mothers reacted to the Great Recession by resorting to harsh parenting methods. What was going on, the researchers found, was not that the mothers were acting because of their own financial situations. The families had been followed for years and the mothers who turned harsh represented a range of financial circumstances. What they had in common was a genetic trait that predisposed them to react strongly to bad times and to good times. They thrived when the economy thrived, and they went the other direction when the overall economy sank. On some level, they were anticipating general adversity and changing their behavior accordingly.

Little differences make a big impact sometimes, especially when stress is involved. Several studies tracked early stress and later health outcomes, such as obesity.

I read about two studies done on rats (with the authors saying there could be similar implications for humans) from the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior. One study linked obesity in offspring to mothers who were stressed during their pregnancies and who dealt with their situation passively. The offspring were more likely to be obese and to develop diabetes.

The other study found that stress during the early years can cause anxiety in adulthood and a preference for comfort foods to soothe that anxiety. We know where that can lead.

Excess weight is not only a health matter, it can affect life prospects in many other ways as well, such as lowering a person’s chances of getting into graduate school. Maybe that’s something we would have guessed, but a Bowling Green State University study indicated it may be true. A high body mass index had a negative effect when applicants for grad school interviewed in person, and the negative effect was especially strong for women applicants.

Let’s look at one more health-related study before moving on. The findings in an Ohio State University study are something I’d never have guessed. Researcher Richard Steckel says people moving out of poverty explains the type 2 diabetes epidemic in the Southern states.

For generations, many people in the South, especially black people, lived in poverty, and their bodies adapted to surviving scarcity. A child’s body is prepared during pregnancy for the conditions his or her mother is experiencing. In the South, those conditions changed rapidly between 1950 and 1980, the study said. Industrialization and new freedoms brought relative prosperity.

People whose parents performed long hours of physical labor on a meager diet sometimes found themselves sitting behind desks and having access to all the caloric food they could eat. (And maybe being stressed enough to want some comfort food. I can testify to that.)

Now, I want to mention two behavioral studies that are related to each other, in that they both involve helping more young people live up to their potential.

The Society for Research in Child Development makes a case for helping students stay engaged with school as they age. Doing that, the researchers said, is a way to avoid problem behaviors and prevent dropping out. They cited other studies that estimated 40-60 percent of high-school students show signs of disengagement.

In the new study, researchers looked at about 1,300 young people in seventh to 11th grades at public schools around the country and found engagement helps them deal with life’s other difficulties.

Getting kids more engaged as early as possible and keeping them engaged is a key to their success and to fewer social problems.

Another study talks about a group that may be especially difficult for authority figures to deal with: potential future entrepreneurs.

Researchers from Sweden and Germany followed 1,000 children into adulthood, cataloging their behavior along the way for 40 years. What they found is what we’ve come to expect, “an urge towards transgressive behavior was clearly present in adolescence.” The future entrepreneurs more often questioned boundaries at school and home, broke rules and took risks, you know, the stuff an entrepreneur needs to do sometimes. The researchers said people would be wrong to see those behaviors as indicators of budding criminality, not for every child anyway.

Both studies suggest to me the need for a degree of caution in labeling, and more effort at engaging. All of the studies provide a little more understanding of the ways in which lives are shaped.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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