Immunity and Income

It’s been known for some time that children who grow up on farms are less likely to have asthma and allergies. Although it’s been assumed that the animal and plant exposures were instrumental, no direct mechanism had been established. Last week, researchers identified the mechanism as the production of regulatory T cells.

T cells are a type of white blood cell and are part of the immune system. They’re produced in the thymus, which sits right behind the sternum. Hence the “T” in T cells. T cells come in about half a dozen types. Unlike the other types, regulatory T cells calm the immune response when the body is exposed to something foreign and dangerous.

In other words, regulatory T cells cause the other T cells to back off. Asthma and allergies are instances where the immune system overreacts, mistaking your own cells as something foreign and dangerous.

Increasingly, researchers are discovering that the immune system affects health and illness well beyond battling bacteria and viruses. For example, you’d think nothing could be further from allergies than cancer, but here too recent research is pointing to T cells. In particular, there’s discussion of using the immune system to cure cancer rather than simply turn it into a chronic illness.

Of course, “cure” is entirely speculative at this point. But there are two reasons to think they’re onto something.

First, cancers erupt all the time. They’re contained by the immune system, which recognizes infant cancer cells as foreign and dangerous and destroys them. For example, the calcium deposits found in breast tissue associated with DCIS—ductal carcinoma in situ—are the remnants of cancer cells that have been destroyed.

Second, researchers have just established that cancer cells are destroyed when exposed to T cells taken from healthy people. Previous research had focused only on revving up the body’s own T cell production rather than introducing T cells from another body. The researchers argue that this works because the native immune system has adapted to the cancer and therefore doesn’t see it as dangerous whereas T cells from outside do.

What this tells me is that you aren’t stuck with the immune system with which you were born and that much can be done to make it healthier. Some of it is developmental, as with farms and allergies, while some is therapeutic, as with T cells and cancer.

Inflammation is an immune response. As I’m sure you’ve heard, many modern diseases are inflammatory. Ironically, inflammation causes adaptive immunity, which is the land of T cells and antibodies, to back down. So people with inflammatory diseases have more difficulty with infections and other assaults by things foreign, dangerous, and new.

Inflammation is also a response to stress. So a simple thing to do to make for a healthy immune system is reduce stress. Let me offer two ideas. They’re a leap, so hang on.

First, redistribute income from the wealthy to those who need it. “Redistribute” doesn’t mean flatten. It just means reducing income inequality and insecurity from its currently grotesque disproportions.

Second, make education free for anyone up to and beyond college. “Free” means it costs the student nothing.

The basis for my proposal comes from a Stanford researcher who recently published a paper titled “The Widening Academic Achievement Gap Between the Rich and the Poor.” Its findings were featured in the New York Times. For my purposes, there were two important pieces of information.

First, a child’s social status affects his or her academic performance: the richer a kid’s family, the better he or she is likely to perform on standardized tests. The gap persists over the child’s school life—that is, the gap is the same in high school as it was in kindergarten. The gap has been getting worse over the last 40 years. I note that this is the same time period in which the working class has been under assault, with wages stagnant while owners of financial and real assets have swept up all of the increases in value from productivity increases. Don’t think this unrelated.

The second thing I found of interest in the paper was that two factors were most heavily associated with a child’s academic performance: family income and parent education level.

To close the circle, academic performance is closely associated with a child’s future income, educational attainment, experience of crime (either as perpetrator or victim), life expectancy, and overall health. And all of those five things are closely associated with one another and closely associated with chronic stress.

So it seems obvious that the simplest, most direct way to reduce stress and promote academic achievement and with it a healthy immune system is to improve family income and the educational status of parents for every child.

Oddly, neither the research paper nor the New York Times mention either solution. Instead, they do the tango with blaming the victim and reformist incrementalism. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand why they would avoid the obvious solutions: although simple, an equitable income distribution and free education are very far from easy. This is the politics and practice of the possible.

Aren’t you tired of sacrificing the simple and direct to the merely possible?