Issues like hunger, illness, and thirst are all causes and effects of poverty. That is to say, that not having food means being poor, but being poor also means being unable to afford food or clean water. The effects of poverty are often interrelated so that one problem rarely occurs alone. Bad sanitation makes one susceptible to diseases; and hunger and lack of clean water makes one even more vulnerable to diseases. Impoverished countries and communities often suffer from discrimination and end up caught in a cycle of poverty. However, poverty also affects the brain and the body of those who experience. In fact, poverty on the brain can extend well beyond the years of financial struggle; even helping to perpetuate this situation.
Imagine having to stress every penny and count every calorie to make sure you are getting enough into your system. Imagine being scared of getting sick because you don’t have medical insurance, or access to any health care service. Now, imagine you have children and you have to provide for them while not being able to financially support yourself. That is what goes through the mind of an adult person living in poverty 24/7; 365 days a year. There are several effects of poverty on the brain, like:
Poverty consumes so much mental energy that those in poor circumstances have little remaining brainpower to concentrate on other areas of life; new research finds. As a result, those with few resources are more likely to make bad decisions that perpetuate their financial woes. A study published in the journal Science called “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function” researchers examined two different groups in drastically different environments. While other research has linked poverty with other factors that affect performance (malnutrition, stress, etc.); this study suggests poverty itself may also be a cause for diminished cognitive capacity. In the first part of the study, low- and middle-income shoppers in New Jersey performed a series of cognitive and logic tests; half were first asked what they would do if their car broke down today, activating financial worries. No difference in performance was seen for well-off participants who were prompted with the car question; but low-income participants exhibited a drop in scores. The next part of the study examined the cognitive abilities of rural farmers in India; before the harvest and then after pay day. Farmers’ scores improved after receiving payment from the harvest.
#2- Gray matter develops slower in poorer children
Brain scans of children who grow up in poverty reveal that, overall, their brains develop less gray matter in the frontal and parietal lobe. Serving as the control center for the brain; the frontal lobe manages accessory cognitive functions like planning, focusing, problem-solving, organizing and controlling impulses. The parietal lobe is responsible for processing sensory information. Researchers from Duke University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison tracked nearly 400 children and young adults in a longitudinal study over the course of six years, between 2001 and 2007. The results, show that kids who came from families below the poverty line exhibited “systematic structural differences” in their brains; with 7-10 percent less gray matter in the three tested areas than those children living above the poverty line. The participants below the poverty line also scored significantly lower on the academic achievement tests; the researchers estimate that 15 to 20 percent of this difference can be to the differences in brain development. This isn’t the first research to show that poverty adversely affects brain development of children. Perhaps the most well-known study, by researchers at Rice University, found that by age three, poor children hear roughly 30 million less words than their more privileged counterparts.
#3- Poverty affects children on a genetic level
The stress of growing up in a poor and unstable household affects children on a genetic level; shortening a portion of their chromosomes that scientists say is a key indicator of aging and illness. In a study, researchers examined the DNA of a small group of 9-year-old African-American boys who had experienced chronic stress as a result of growing up in families with poor socioeconomic status. They found that the boys telomeres were shorter than those of boys the same age and ethnicity who came from advantaged families. Telomeres are repetitive sequences of DNA found at the ends of chromosomes that function as a sort of cap to protect the genetic information when the DNA replicates. The telomeres become shorter each time DNA replicates, and studies have shown that stress accelerates that shortening; serving as a sort of genetic weathering that’s similar to aging.
Growing up in worse socioeconomic circumstances can impair working memory as an adult and affect the size of different parts of the brain. Also, stress and poverty experienced during childhood could have a negative impact on the ability to regulate emotions in adulthood. A research, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that children who grew up poor were more likely to experience emotional regulation problems later on in adulthood, and also had differences in activity in certain brain regions. “Our findings suggest that the stress-burden of growing up poor may be an underlying mechanism that accounts for the relationship between poverty as a child and how well your brain works as an adult,” said study researcher Dr. K. Luan Phan, a professor of psychiatry at University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine. Forty-nine people were in the study, about half of whom came from low-income families. They were followed from age 9 — the age at which researchers took note of their poverty status — until age 24. Researchers found an association between lower family income during childhood and higher amygdala activity; (which is link to fear and negative emotions) and lower prefrontal cortex activity (which is link to negative emotion regulation).
The good news is that the brain is plastic: i.e., the effects of poverty on the brain of children can be changed through target interventions in specific environmental factors. Working with parents and neuroscientists in understanding the impacts of poverty can help policy makers and society at large reduce the instances of generational poverty and give these children the promise of a future. But if you want to help more, there are several things you can do to make a different.
Also, you can join to the “Fighting Poverty Program” in which, you will learn about the conditions of the billions of people living in poverty and how it affects their health, education, freedom, economic opportunities and more. Also, you will join teams of humanitarians from around the world living in a communal setting where everyone works together to live; learn and serve together with the poor. Finally, we invite you to share this post with all your friends on your social network. Remember, if you have any questions or you want to know how to join the Fighting Poverty Program, please leave a comment in the comment section below.