The Washington Post reports this morning that “Chronic stress from growing up poor appears to have a direct impact on the brain, leaving children with impairment in at least one key area — working memory.” It’s been clear for some time that children raised in poverty have health troubles and problems staying in school. But what was the cause? The article by Rob Stein points out that previous research has focused on intelligence, genetics, exposure to environmental toxins and on the effects of being raised in less intellectual environments.
Cornell University professor Gary Evans knew poor children grew up with much stress. “When you are poor, when it rains it pours,” Evans said. “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. There’s a lot more demands on low-income families. We know that produces stress in families, including on the children.” He measured the presence of hormones produced by stress in a group of children, their blood pressure and their weight, and he tested their short-term memory.
The researcher found that the longer a child lived in poverty, the higher the presence of the stress hormones and the lower these children tended to score on measures of memory. “It’s not just ‘Read to our kids and take them to the library,’ ” Evans told the Post. “We need to take into account that chronic stress takes a toll not only on their health, but it may take a toll on their cognitive functioning.”