It is well known that individuals from more advantaged social classes enjoy better mental and physical health than do individuals within lower classes. Various mechanisms have been evoked to explain the association between socioeconomic status (SES) and health. One mechanism that has received particular attention in recent years is stress. It has been shown that individuals lower in SES report greater exposure to stressful life events and a greater impact of these events on their life than individuals higher in SES. In order to measure whether the development of the relationship between SES and mental health is sustained by exposure to high levels of glucocorticoids, we measured morning salivary cortisol levels as well as cognitive function (memory, attention, and language) in 307 children (from 6 to 16 years of age) from low versus high SES in the Montreal area in Canada. The results revealed that low SES children from 6 to 10 years old present significantly higher salivary cortisol levels when compared to children from high SES. This difference disappears at the time of school transition, and no SES differences are observed in salivary cortisol levels during high school. However, children from low and high SES do not differ with regard to memory or to attentional and linguistic functions. Also, mothers of low SES children reported higher feelings of depression and more unhealthy behaviors, while mothers of high SES children reported higher stress related to work or family transitions. Altogether, these results show that low SES in young children is related to increased cortisol secretion, although the impact of SES on cortisol secretion is absent after transition to high school. These data are interpreted within the context of the equalization process of class patterning. Four social explanatory factors are suggested to explain the disappearance of SES differences in basal cortisol levels after school transition, taking into account the influence of family environment on the child's secretion of stress hormones.
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