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Adolescents who experience housing insecurity may have increased risk of future health problems. Researchers found that adolescents who had experienced housing insecurity later had elevated levels of C-reactive protein—a biomarker of inflammation—in their bodies compared to adolescents who had not. Harvard School of Public Health postdoctoral fellow Ryan Keen discussed his research with Harvard Public Health.

Why study this topic?

It has long been known that intense physical stress on the body typically increases C-reactive protein (CRP). But how psychosocial adversity during childhood gets under the skin to influence biological processes—as well as how that might change health outcomes later in life—remains less clear. Recent research has suggested that psychosocial stressors may produce similar inflammatory responses to physical stressors. So we decided to test whether childhood housing insecurity led to increased levels of CRP.

What did you find?

Our findings showed that a single experience of adolescent housing insecurity between ages 11 and 16 led to an average increase of 6.4 percent in CRP levels. Multiple experiences of housing insecurity compounded this effect. So, if an adolescent were exposed to housing insecurity today, you might expect to see a 6.4 percent increase in their CRP levels within the next few months. If they were then exposed again one year later, you might expect to find another 6.4 percent increase.

What would you like to see happen as a result of your findings?

I hope this interdisciplinary approach to homelessness research encourages more cross-sector collaborations. Many people already agree that unmet social needs are detrimental to health outcomes. But this study goes further by exploring one potential biological mechanism. Such interdisciplinary research can enable cross-sector collaborations between physicians, medical-legal partnerships, and social workers to provide wraparound care for homeless populations.

—Leah Samuel

(Study in Brain, Behavior and Immunity, July 2024)

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