5 Weird Ways Being Poor Affects Your Body and Mind

Ryan Ong

Ryan Ong

Last updated 10 July, 2017

Being poor is bad enough, but it affects your health in weird ways too. Here are the ways poverty impacts your body and mind, according to research.

As if being poor wasn’t bad enough, research shows that it also does odd things to your body. As it turns out, poverty and ill-health go hand-in-hand. When you’re down to your last S$2, you probably aren’t eating organic food and chilling at top notch yoga studios.

Here’s how the state of your wallet is tied to your body and mind.

Poverty Makes You Age Faster

This is called “biological weathering” and is due to the shortening of telomeres. These are like protective caps at the ends of chromosomes. The longer the telomeres, the longer your cells can keep regenerating (and the longer you live).

However, there are lifestyle factors that can shorten the telomeres. These include things like constant stress and poor diet, which go hand-in-hand with low income (junk food is cheaper than healthy food).

In studies done in the United States, researchers found that 70% of women in families with per-capita income of under US$3,900 (S$5,389) per year showed accelerated ageing, compared to the group average. This was attributed to the stress of not being able to pay monthly bills.

In addition to dying younger, the shortening of telomeres means that the poor are more likely to be afflicted by conditions such as Alzheimer’s, or heart disease.

So, it’s important to work hard and lift yourself out of poverty, to save your own life. Right?

Nope, because…

Teens Who Lift Themselves Out of Poverty Are More Likely to Die Young

Everyone admires the superstar teenager who comes from a harsh background, but then makes a success of themselves. They deserve the recognition. What they don’t deserve - but will get anyway - is a heightened chance to die young.

In a study done on 500 impoverished teens, from age 17 to 22, blood samples showed that the ones who became successful were often less healthy. Despite the fact that they drank less alcohol and were less susceptible to drug use (that’s how they succeeded), the tremendous stress placed upon them caused premature ageing (see point 1).

Lifting yourself out of poverty takes incredible focus and stamina, which take a toll on your physical health. It often means working two jobs, depriving yourself of basic recreation and social activities, and pushing yourself to work despite illness and fatigue.

Put it this way: if you force yourself to walk a kilometre with a sprained ankle, you could still get where you’re going - but you’ll probably do some permanent damage on the way there. That’s kind of what working your way out of poverty entails.

But what about the ones who don’t push through this way? There must be some benefit to that right? Well maybe they get to live a bit longer, but...

Being Poor Makes You Less Intelligent

There’s a horrible prejudice that poor people are in their situation because they’re less intelligent. “If she had studied harder...” Singaporeans like to lecture. But as it turns out, it may be the other way around.

Children born into poverty tend to have poorly developed language and problem-solving abilities. They may also have less in the way of general knowledge, and a poorer grasp of current events. The simple reason is that poorer people need to develop different skills and parts of the brain, in order to cope.

When a child has no money, and both parents can’t feed her, she hasn’t got time to ponder quadratic equations or the works of Charles Dickens. School seems like an abstract waste of time. Teaching a person to fish is great; but when they’re starving right now, they don’t have time to learn.

Besides ignorance, poverty also leads to bad decision making.

You wouldn’t steal a S$1.80 ice-cream cone from the minimart because you can rationalise the loss-to-gain ratio. (Go to jail over that? No thank you.) But when you’re poor all the time, and life’s a perpetual crisis, your brain just won’t work in such a calm, measured fashion.

That’s why poorer people are also more inclined to do things like indulge in the lottery: they’re desperately grabbing for any means of escape. Unfortunately...

There’s No Escape, Even in Dreams

Poverty has a detrimental effect on sleep patterns. It’s been known for a long time that the quality of your sleep (which means more than just the number of hours) is tied to your socioeconomic status. Rich people tend to sleep well, whereas poor people don’t even get a break here.

There are two ways poverty affects your sleep. The first is stress, which you’ll notice is a recurring theme in this article. When you’re down to your last 83 cents and you need to pay for grandpa’s S$200 kidney dialysis, you won’t be sleeping well.

Just ask any unemployed person in serious debt: they might have plenty more time to sleep than you do, but still walk around with “panda eyes”, and feel deep fatigue.

The second reason is property. Poorer people tend to live in less pristine conditions. They’re the ones who rent that dirt cheap apartment, that no one wants because it’s right next to the MRT tracks or truck-laden roads. They get woken at 5 am in the morning when the train or trucks roar past them.

They tend to live in less centrally located properties, and can’t afford housing near their workplace. Some need to be up by 5 am to get to work on time, and because they work two jobs they only get home by 11 pm.

Poorer people sometimes can’t afford simple amenities like a good fan in every room, let alone air-conditioning. Think cheap mattresses, uncomfortable beds, and cramped spaces.

This doesn’t just make them slower and grumpier; it makes them vulnerable to depression, accident-prone, and forgetful. This also explains why it’s hard for the poor to get ahead: the world’s top geniuses wouldn’t stand out at work, if you subjected them to several consecutive years of sleep deprivation.

Poor People Are More Likely to Get Fat Than Rich People

In our great-great-grandparent’s day, this would have sounded like a joke. Back in the 1800s and early 1900s, poor people were the thin ones. If you had to pull a rickshaw from Tampines to Jurong and back, you’d be pretty thin even on a daily diet of kaya toast.

But things changed during the post-war boom in the 1950’s, and today, the situation has reversed: it’s the poor who are more likely to be fat. One reason for this is that healthy food is more expensive, while cheap, processed food is abundant.

If you’re dirt poor, you’re probably more willing to spend S$10 on a giant bucket of greasy chicken, a mega-sized Coke, and two sides than you are to buy a fresh salmon sandwich. The human instinct is to fight hunger by hoarding as much food as we can get.

The second problem is limited willpower, but not in the sense that you imagine. Impoverished people already focus their will on things like working a second job, and some don’t even get to replenish their cognitive powers with sleep. The mental stamina to exercise and diet - tough even for richer people - just isn’t there.

Perhaps the next time you’re going to donate food or money to the poor, take a look at what they’re getting. If it’s more canned food and instant noodles, your charity money should probably be repurposed.

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Ryan has been writing about finance for the last 10 years. He also has his fingers in a lot of other pies, having written for publications such as Men’s Health, Her World, Esquire, and Yahoo! Finance.


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