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The impact of social disadvantage on autonomic physiology of latinx adolescents: The role of environmental risks

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The experience of poverty embodies complex, multidimensional stressors that may adversely affect physiological and psychological domains of functioning. Compounded by racial/ethnic discrimination, the financial aspect of family poverty typically coincides with additional social and physical environmental risks such as pollution exposure, housing burden, elevated neighborhood unemployment, and lower neighborhood education levels. In this study, we investigated the associations of multidimensional social disadvantage throughout adolescence with autonomic nervous system (ANS) functioning at 17 years. Two hundred and twenty nine low-income Mexican-American adolescents (48.6% female) and their parents were assessed annually between the ages of 10 and 16. Participants' census tracts were matched with corresponding annual administrative data of neighborhood housing burden, education, unemployment, drinking water quality, and fine particulate matter. We combined measures of adolescents' electrodermal response and respiratory sinuses arrhythmia at rest and during a social exclusion challenge (Cyberball) to use as ANS indices of sympathetic and parasympathetic activity, respectively. Controlling for family income-to-needs, youth exposed to greater cumulative water and air pollution from ages 10-16 displayed altered patterns of autonomic functioning at rest and during the social challenge. Conversely, youth living in areas with higher housing burden displayed healthy patterns of autonomic functioning. Altogether, results suggest that toxin exposure in youths' physical environments disrupts the ANS, representing a plausible mechanism by which pollutants and social disadvantage influence later physical and mental health.

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