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How extreme poverty can alter your genetic makeup and shorten your lifespan

A young scavenger boy grabs plastic between tons of trash in the Anlong Pi landfill on June 11, 2014 in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
A young scavenger boy grabs plastic between tons of trash in the Anlong Pi landfill on June 11, 2014 in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Photo by Omar Havana/Getty Images

Extreme poverty is affecting billions of people around the world and a new study is showing how it could actually alter the human genetic code.

The world is a big place and nearly half of its population, more than three billion people, are living on less than $2.50 a day. Even more alarming is that nearly 1.5 billion people live in what's known as "extreme poverty," which is less than $1.25 a day. Of those three billion, one billion are children and according to UNICEF, 22,000 children are expected to die each day due to poverty. Knowing that children are one of the largest groups of those affected, a new study shows that living in such extreme conditions can actually alter your genetic code, which in turn, could affect the aging process and immune system.

According to a recent study by multiple researchers published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, experiencing extreme poverty at a young age will affect future generations. The study examined a group of nearly 3,000 nine year old African-American boys who had been previously dealing with chronic stress as a result of poor socioeconomic status. Of the 3,000, 40 were selected who had been living in the worst conditions. Researchers examined the repetitive sequences of DNA known as telomeres, which are found at the end of the chromosomes that protect genetic information each time a strand of DNA is ready to replicate.

As Al Jazeera America points out, telomeres shrink as DNA continues to replicate and extreme poverty and harsh conditions speed up the process.

"The scientists were surprised to find significant associations between the shortening of the boys’ telomeres and low family income, low levels of maternal education, family instability and a harsh parenting style, compared with boys who came from higher-income and more stable and nurturing backgrounds."

The study also points out that education is a key factor in the length of the telomeres, and broken down, the higher the education of the household, the better the chance the children will live longer and be in better health.

"Doubling a family’s income was associated with telomeres that were 5 percent longer. Kids whose mothers had completed high school had telomeres that were 32 percent longer; if the mothers had attended some college, the boys’ telomeres were 35 percent longer."

Research done for Butler hospital in 2010 also notes that children as young as 10 who are exposed to violence, which is more prevalent in low income areas, have shorter telomeres than those who live in a higher income bracket.

In 1998, the UN estimated that it would take around $40 billion in order to offer basic needs such as education, health and nutrition and clean water and sanitation to every person living in developing countries. Adjusted for inflation, the cost today would be $58 billion. With billions struggling each day in dire conditions, new research shows that investing in the world's poor today, could benefit future generations moving forward.

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