Poverty can physically impair brain, reducing children's ability to learn

Apr 10, 2009 By Sheri Hall

(PhysOrg.com) -- Chronic stress from growing up in poverty can physiologically impact children's brains, impairing their working memory and diminishing their ability to develop language, reading and problem-solving skills, reports a new Cornell study.

The study, published online March 30 in the , is one of the first to look at cognitive responses to physiological stress in children who live in poverty.

"There is a lot of evidence that are under tremendous amounts of stress, and we know already that stress has many implications," said lead author Gary W. Evans, the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology in the Departments of Design and Environmental Analysis and of Human Development in Cornell's College of Human Ecology. "What these data raise is the possibility that stress is also related to cognitive development."

Evans and Michele A. Schamber '08, who worked with Evans as an undergraduate, have been gathering detailed data about 195 children from rural households above and below the poverty line for 14 years. They quantified the level of physiological stress each child experienced at ages 9 and 13 using a "stress score" called allostatic load, which combines measures of the stress hormones cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine, as well as blood pressure and .

At age 17, the subjects also underwent tests to measure their working memory, which is the ability to remember information in the short term. Working memory is crucial for everyday activities as well as for forming long-term memories.

Evans found that children who lived in impoverished environments for longer periods of time showed higher stress scores and suffered greater impairments in working memory as young adults. Those who spent their entire childhood in poverty scored about 20 percent lower on working memory than those who were never poor.

"When you are poor, when it rains it pours," Evans explained. "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.

"We put these things together and can say one reason we get this link between poverty and deficits in may be from this chronic elevated stress," he said.

The findings suggest that government policies and programs that aim to reduce the income-performance gap should consider the stress children experience at home.

"It's not enough to just take our kids to the library," Evans said. "We need to also take into account that chronic takes a toll on their cognitive functioning."

Provided by Cornell University (news : web)

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User comments : 3

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Gammakozy
1 / 5 (1) Apr 10, 2009
What about heredity? Unless the groups were contolled for family cognitive levels then the study conclusion is premature and possibly misguided.
skitterlad
1 / 5 (1) Apr 10, 2009
Knowledge will bring happiness to the poor.

The poor in the USA are rich compared to the poor in India.

It is all in the mind. We create the environment we live in.

Did they look at single parent vs. both parents also??

We all have to be happy for this life and make the most of it.

Don't spend money you need to save.
pcunix
not rated yet Apr 13, 2009
I believe it's called "cycle of poverty" for just that reason.

But gosh, it would be simply AWFUL to increase taxes to pay for social programs that might help eliminate that.

It would be especially awful to ask some of those Wall Street types to fork over more of their multi-million dollar bonuses.

Nope - let the kids grow up dumb so we can repeat the cycle. That's obviously bettr than raising taxes.

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