Ignore the Twenty Somethings at our Peril

Have you heard of Epigenetics? Epigenetics is genes expressing themselves in different ways. This happens because of environmental influences and without changing the genetic makeup. Epigenetic changes can be profound in a growing organism, like an embryo.

A pregnant woman's stress and nutrition can dramatically affect the development of the embryo growing inside her. Malnutrition, domestic violence and other stresses (measured by cortisol levels) in the first 100 days of pregnancy have epigenetic effects, resulting in a lower birth weight baby with underdeveloped organs, including the baby's brain. These babies often later develop attention deficit disorders, anxiety disorders and other problems. On into adolescence, they are more likely to succumb to unhealthy and risky behaviors such as substance abuse, early sexual activity and recklessness.

All because of stressors experienced by their mothers before they were even cognizant. So who are these mothers?

  • In the US, a woman gives birth the first time (on average) when she is 25 years old. Most American women without college degrees have children in their 20s. 5% give birth in their teens. (Source)
  • Women ages 20-24 are at the greatest risk of nonfatal intimate partner violence.
    (Bureau of Justice Statistics, Intimate Partner Violence in the U.S. 1993-2004, 2006.)
  •  One-third of young adults lack health insurance. (Source)
  •  Almost 40% of all car accidents happen to drivers ages 20-34. (Source)
  • Young earners in the 20-to-24-year-old age range earned a median salary of $446 a week ($23,000 per year) in 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.(Source) Almost half were below the poverty level for a family of three.
  • Teens and young adults are more likely than persons of other ages to be murdered with a gun.  (Source)
Given the importance of protecting young mothers -- young adults of either sex -- they must be a high priority for us as a nation. The emotional, mental and physical health of young adults ripples to the next generation. Yet other than some provisions in the Affordable Care Act, few government programs provide benefits to twenty-somethings.

Our federal, state and local programs focus instead on children and the elderly.  I tried the benefits finder at benefits.gov, answering the questions as a young family with one child and no college education. Unless the young adults are veterans or active service members, there is very little support available.  Seniors enjoy Medicare, Social Security, extra tax credits and discounted meals and rates at many places.  Children get free education, free health care, free and reduced meals, sports programs, and discounts nearly everywhere.  Young adults, those with the least earnings and the highest risk factors, are eligible for almost nothing. Last hired, first fired too.

It's time for us to refocus our attention on the young adults, those out of high school but not yet established in their careers.  What do we want for them?  How can we help? What kinds of protection would be effective not only for them but for their young children (including embryos) too?

You can't care about babies and children without caring about their young parents. Children's issues are family issues.

And the clincher? That young mother's stressors not only affect the baby in her womb.  If that child is a girl, the same epigenetic influences affect all of her already-formed eggs as well.  It's a triple generation whammy.  (Source)