Chronic poverty 'can breed disease'

EXTREME poverty can alter people's genetic make-up making them more susceptible to diseases such as cancer, according the Scotland's new chief medical officer yesterday.

Dr Harry Burns said that biological factors may be just as important in explaining the gap in health and lifespan amongst rich and poor as lifestyle and diet.

Dr Burns, who spoke at a World Health Organisation conference in Venice yesterday, said people who are continually exposed to stress as a result of chronic social deprivation are more likely to suffer disease and cell malfunction.

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He called for an improvement in primary healthcare services to address the needs of deprived areas as well as tackling the socio-economic prospects of deprived areas.

Dr Burns, who addressed the Venice conference on the Biological Basis of Poverty, said: "We know now the ill health of those in deprived areas is not just due to the fact that they may smoke or drink more. There are a whole lot of other factors in play, and we are beginning to unravel them in an exciting way."

The fact that the gap between the lifespans of rich and poor in Scotland is between ten and 15 years formed the basis of a team of researchers at the Glasgow Centre of Population Health.

The team's research into the biological effects of deprivation was presented to the Venice audience.

American researchers have already investigated the effects of stress on a part of DNA called a telomere which helps prevent cancers developing in mutating cells and is a measure of biological ageing.

In people under severe stress the DNA strand is shorter and less able to resist cell mutation.

Dr Burns said: "In trying to understand where all the evidence is pointing, we have come up with a model on how poverty and social isolation actually affect biology.

"Cells age faster and that begins to explain some of the health problems experienced by the poor. We've got to invest extra resources in primary care to expand the service and improve access."

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He named Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire, west central Scotland and Tayside as the worst areas of deprivation and added: "We must try hard to alleviate poverty so that people can take pride in having control of their own lives."

A spokesman for the Scottish Executive said: "Scotland's health is improving, but not fast enough. Premature deaths from cancer, stroke and heart disease have all significantly decreased in recent years however people living in deprived areas have a significantly shorter life expectancy than those in more affluent areas.

"That is simply not acceptable and that is why we are putting health improvement at the heart of our activities.

"We are working in a range of settings including schools, health centres, and neighbourhood shops to make the healthy choice the easy choice, and we will be getting out into the most deprived neighbourhoods to identify people at risk of poor health, so that they can take the right preventive action," the spokesman said.

"But it's not just about what the NHS can do for people. Poor health has underlying causes involving education, housing, planning, jobs and the economy. That's why Executive ministers are working together to address all of these so that all of Scotland can benefit from better health." Heart disease mortality in Scotland has fallen by 45 per cent, while the number of deaths caused by strokes has fallen by 40 per cent in ten years.