How Poverty During Childhood Impacts the Adult Brain

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What Is Poverty?


Poverty refers to a state of being very poor. A person living in poverty will often live in poorer conditions.

For people that live in poverty, daily life means constant exposure to questionable security circumstances or depending on others for a better chance of survival—all of which can result in developmental challenges that may affect their well-being long term.

Among these challenges are the effects insufficient food, clothing, shelter, and care in childhood can have into adulthood, particularly when it comes to brain development.

Because a large part of brain formation occurs very early, within the first six years of life— the conditions a child faces growing up can impact the state of the brain years later.

This article discusses how poverty affects children, regarding brain development and mental health.

Risk Factors That May Affect Brain Development in Childhood

Despite the many challenges poverty may pose for the physical and mental well-being of children, being raised in less than ideal social, economic, or financial conditions will not automatically guarantee challenges to brain health. 

Potential Risk Factors

Research on neural development has recognized several factors that may affect cognitive abilities. These factors include:

  • Financial strain on the family
  • Stigmatization in the family or community
  • Living in areas of political or social crisis
  • Unstable attachment to caregivers in childhood
  • Stressors at home such as noise or violence in the community
  • Academic and extracurricular stressors in school
  • Exposure to poor parenting techniques
  • Low birth weight
  • Poor prenatal nutrition, or exposure to drugs/other toxic agents during pregnancy

Overall, childhood poverty can lead to cognitive challenges in adulthood such as memory problems and higher stress levels.

Impact of Poverty on Adult Brain Development

Childhood poverty has far-reaching effects on health and well-being. To begin, a child of parents of a low socioeconomic standing is at a high risk of experiencing infant mortality. This same child may experience low birth weight when born, a predisposition to mental health problems, and notable anatomical changes in the brain. 

Neurocognitive development may be stunted or otherwise negatively affected by poverty primarily due to the stress produced from living through this condition. This manifests in the following ways listed below.

Lower Spatial Short-Term Memory

For impoverished children, short-term memory functions can be seriously disrupted, especially because short-term memory is believed to reside in the hippocampus. This region of the brain handles learning and memory and is widely accepted to be sensitive to stress, a common downside of poverty.

Being raised in insufficiency could affect the hippocampal structure, disturbing the memory and mental development.

Increased Risk of Developing Depression and Anxiety

Studies have shown that children who lived in families of lower incomes by age nine displayed greater activity in the amygdala, while less action was observed in the prefrontal cortex.

These differences are important because the amygdala is a portion of the brain that controls the fear response, while the prefrontal cortex is the personality center where we process the environment and give reactions to our surroundings.

Both regions of the brain affect emotional regulation, and their dysfunction brought on by factors like poverty in childhood worsens the chances of developing mood disorders such as anxiety and depression, as well as substance abuse or aggression in later years.

Reduction in Gray and White Matter Volumes

A family's economic status has an impact on the amount of white and gray matter found in the brain. Gray and white matter are important because gray matter controls movement, memory, and emotions, and white matter helps with the transfer of information within the brain.

Adults with a low amount of gray matter have trouble retrieving words and show a reduction in processing speed. Those that have low white matter—popularly seen in the elderly, usually develop difficulties with movement and cognitive function.

Increased Feelings of Helplessness

The term "helplessness" refers to a state of being where someone feels an inability to provide, protect, or care for themself."

People Who Grew Up Poor May Be More Likely to Give Up on Challenging Tasks

To examine the impact of childhood poverty on adult helplessness, one study asked adults (some of these adults grew up in poverty, and others did not) to solve a puzzle. Results of this task showed that adults who grew up in poverty gave up trying to solve the puzzle 8% more quickly than the other group of adults.

Coping With Mental Health Challenges

Here are some ways you can address any mental health changes you may be facing, no matter your financial situation:

  • Make use of pediatric care: Research shows that low-income families are more likely to reach out to their child's pediatrician for mental health support. Children can also benefit when their caregivers take advantage of social services that care for the under-privileged, as well as pediatric primary care settings which can provide screening for possible mental health issues that might develop from living in poverty.
  • Consider therapy: It's possible that you'll be able to find low-cost or free therapy options. You can also ask a therapist if they will offer a sliding scale (meaning that they will reduce your session fees). The organization Open Path Collective works to provide people access to low-cost mental health treatment.
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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Elizabeth Plumptre
Elizabeth is a freelance health and wellness writer. She helps brands craft factual, yet relatable content that resonates with diverse audiences.