A recent psychological study entitled “Effects of childhood poverty and chronic stress on regulatory brain function in adulthood” has concluded that childhood poverty and chronic stress exposure are linked to the ability to regulate emotions in adulthood.
“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,” explains professor K. Luan Phan, one of the study’s authors. Phan and a group of fellow researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Cornell University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Denver collaborated on the study.
The study itself included 49 participants, about half of whom came from low-income families. Monitored by researchers from age 9 to 24, participants’ poverty status, parent-child interactions, stress responses, and exposures to stressors all contributed to the study’s findings. When each participant reached age 24, researchers administered a test in which the participants had to try to suppress their negative emotions when exposed to a given image.
Using brain imaging, the researchers found that the 24-year-old adults who had lived in poverty as children were unable to minimize their emotional reactions to images by mentally distancing themselves as effectively as those participants who had not grown up in poverty. The brain images of the poor children turned adults revealed greater activity in the amygdala, an area of the brain that relates to fear and other negative emotions. The same individuals demonstrated less activity in the prefrontal cortex, part of the brain that helps to regulate negative emotion.
Because a child’s brain is continuously developing, it is more sensitive to high-stress situations like poverty than an adult brain is, explains Pilyoung Kim a co-author of the study. Chronic stress from childhood through adolescence, whether due to substandard housing, crowding, noise, or family turmoil, determined the relationship between childhood poverty and prefrontal brain function during the participants’ emotional regulation process, Phan said.
Phan also stated that the well known negative effects of poverty can lead to “a cascade of increasing risk factors” for children; dysfunction in the amygdala and prefrontal cortex has been linked to mood disorders like depression and anxiety, as well as substance abuse and even impulsive aggression.
The study’s authors further concluded that the ability to regulate negative emotions can provide protection against the physical and psychological health consequences that result from these high-stress situations, like poverty.
These psychological findings are especially important, given the results of a new World Bank study concluding that roughly 400 million children across the globe are living in extreme poverty. While the report also found that 721 million fewer people were living on less than $1.25 a day in 2010 compared to 1981, it concluded that children comprised one-third of these people. Low-income countries saw an even higher rate of impoverished children at 50 percent.
“We have witnessed an historic movement of people lifting themselves out of poverty over the past three decades,” said World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim, “but the number of children living in poverty alone should leave no doubt that there remains much work to do….Children should not be cruelly condemned to a life without hope…”
Given the results of both the psychological study and the recent World Bank report, early intervention in childhood poverty is essential to preventing not only prolonged destitution, but also to protecting the mental health and stability of these children in the future.
– Lucy Morroni