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Aging Before Birth and Beyond

Aging Before Birth and Beyond
Cleopatra Abdou traces the impact of culture on individuals over the life span, starting before birth and extending across generations.

The USC Davis School of Gerontology’s first-year assistant professor Cleopatra Abdou continues to impress colleagues and students both on campus and on a global stage.

In the fall, she was invited to speak at the EPS Global Pediatrics Summit in Nanjing, China, where she discussed the importance of non-material cultural resources such as supportive relationships for thriving during pregnancy, as well as the far-reaching multigenerational consequences of pregnancy outcomes.

“The ideas that aging begins before birth and that health and well-being carry over into future generations present profound, challenging and extremely rich avenues for interdisciplinary research,” she said. “The summit was an enriching opportunity to come together with other health scientists from around the globe.”

Abdou joined USC in 2010, coming to USC Davis after completing her Ph.D. in social and health psychology (with a minor in quantitative psychology/statistics) at UCLA and spending two years as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholar at the University of Michigan, where she trained in social epidemiology and population health.

In her research, Abdou traces the impact of culture, self-perceptions and the social environment on individuals over the life span, starting before birth and extending across generations.

A study by Abdou linking the importance of communal relationships to the health and happiness of pregnant women made waves last fall. While acknowledging the importance of economics when it comes to health, Abdou explored the epidemiological paradox: the well-documented pattern that many less acculturated Americans thrive despite lower socioeconomic status.

“Given that we have not yet figured out how to eradicate poverty even within our own wealthy nation, it was my goal to find the common denominator among the lines of evidence pointing away from economics and apply this to health disparities research,” Abdou said. “I am especially concerned with what is working against the odds. This, combined with paying attention to the world around me, led me to the study of the health effects of non-material resources and cultural resources, like communalism, in particular.”

Communalism – a sense of cooperation and community – proved a powerful force for pregnancy health, and within the concept, Abdou saw even greater possibilities.

“Happiness, love, a sense of belonging and being valued and informed – these are not just ends in and of themselves; they are also potentially powerful solutions. Almost all solutions to our world’s challenges contain one or more of these elements at the most basic level, and it is no different with health,” she said. “The construct of communalism embodies many of these elements, which are among the very best of our humanness, and I think that’s why we found it to be so meaningful for reducing ethnic and socioeconomic disparities in prenatal health.”

Although Abdou’s study challenges existing assumptions about ethnic and socioeconomic differences in prenatal health, she was not surprised by her findings.

“While ethnicity/race and socioeconomic status are robust predictors of health, we need a better understanding of the specific mechanisms or processes underlying these relationships. There are plenty of people with ample socioeconomic resources who are not particularly healthy or happy. At the same time, there are people with terribly inadequate socioeconomic resources who manage to be healthy, happy, engaged members of our society,” she said.

“Communalism seems to be one of those things that supports people in being healthy and happy, particularly against the odds.”

In all of her research, Abdou said she finds herself drawn to exploring the idea that aging begins before birth, and perhaps even farther back, at least to our grandparents’ generation.

“My goal is to continue to expand the scope with which I examine how in utero and early life experiences affect health later in life and across generations – and not just adversely, but in good ways,” Abdou said. “For example, what are the things that we can do to positively affect the health and aging trajectories of our children and grandchildren?”

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