Growing Up in Poverty Can Affect a Child's Brain

May 8, 2009

A new study, one of the first to look at cognitive responses to physiological stress, finds that chronic stress from growing up in poverty can affect a child’s brain and diminish a child’s ability to develop language, reading and problem-solving skills.

Researchers rated stress levels using an “allostatic load” scale – measurements of levels of the stress hormones cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine, blood pressure and body mass index – and tested children at ages nine, 13 and 17. They also measured working memory at age 17. They found that, the longer children lived in poverty, the higher their allostatic load and the lower their working memory. Children who spent their entire childhoods in poverty scored about 20 percent lower on working memory tests than children who were never poor.

“When you are poor, when it rains it pours” the study’s author and Cornell University professor Gary W. Evans told the Cornell Chronicle. “You may have housing problems. You may have more conflict in the family. There’s a lot more pressure in paying the bills. You’ll probably end up moving more often. We know that produces stress in families, including on the children.”

The study’s authors suggest that government policies and programs aiming to reduce the income-performance gap should consider the stress children experience at home.

“Other researchers cautioned that more work is needed to explore and confirm the findings, and that chronic stress is probably one of the many factors affecting a child’s development,” the Washington Post reports. “But they said the results provided insight into the connections between poverty and achievement.”

“Childhood Poverty, Chronic Stress, and Adult Working Memory” is published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Read the complete study here.

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