Growing up poor could increase your susceptibility to the common cold, according to a small new study. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University found that socioeconomic status during childhood is associated with telomere length in adulthood; telomeres are the "caps" at the ends of chromosomes -- similar to the plastic caps on shoelaces that keep them from fraying -- that have been linked in past research to cell aging, as well as susceptibility to infectious disease in adulthood.
For the study, published in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, researchers looked at the telomere lengths of 152 healthy people ages 18 to 55. The study participants were asked whether they currently owned their home, as well as if their parents owned their homes when they were children, as a gauge of their childhood and adult socioeconomic status.
Researchers found an association between telomere length of the study participants, and the number of years that their parents were homeowners, with the fewer years their parents were homeowners being linked with shorter telomeres. Specifically, for every year between age 1 and 18 that their parents didn't own a home, participants' telomere length was shorter by 5 percent.
Then the study participants were exposed to the rhinovirus. They were quarantined for five days, and researchers evaluated them to see if any of them developed an infection. They found that participants who had a lower socioeconomic status during childhood were more susceptible to getting sick after exposure to the rhinovirus, with odds of developing a cold going up by 9 percent for each year their parents didn't own a home during their childhood.
"This provides valuable insight into how our childhood environments can influence our adult health," study researcher Sheldon Cohen, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said in a statement. Cohen is the researcher who first found an association between shorter telomeres and increased susceptibility to acute infectious disease in adulthood.
Cohen's previous research, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, showed that telomere length within immune cells is associated with rhinovirus infection risk. However, that study only showed an association between telomere length and cold infection risk in people ages 22 and older, with the strength of the association growing with age.