How Poverty During Childhood Impacts the Adult Brain

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Poverty occurs when people "lack the means to satisfy their basic needs." A person living in poverty will often occupy below-standard living conditions.

Children rely on the adults in their lives to provide safety and security; unfortunately, this is often difficult for adults living in poverty to provide for their children. As a result, some children living in poverty face 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's brain development and mental health.

Risk Factors That May Affect Brain Development in Childhood

Research has shown that poverty may pose challenges to both physical and mental health. For instance, those who live in poverty have shorter life expectancies and experience higher death rates. They may have to engage in more risk-taking behavior in order to get their needs met, putting them at risk of injury and death.

In addition, children and adolescents that live in poverty are at a higher risk of pediatric suicide than their peers who don't live in poverty. Overall, people who live in poverty don't have the same access to the resources to help their physical and mental health as well.

However, these factors do not automatically mean that children living in poverty will experience challenges to brain health. There are many risk factors that come into play.

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

Impact of Poverty on Adult Brain Development

Childhood poverty may have far-reaching effects on health and well-being. Infant mortality rates are higher when infants don't receive adequate nutrition, safe housing, and health care.

If a pregnant person living in poverty is unable to meet their nutritional needs during pregnancy, their child may experience low birth weight when born. Maternal distress is a risk factor for low birth weight as well, as it alters hormone regulation during pregnancy.

Low birth weight can cause a predisposition to mental health problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and notable anatomical changes in the brain that affect abilities such as executive function.

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 some children living in poverty, 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.

In addition to stress, poor nutrition and a lack of cognitive stimulation are considered to be contributors to deficits in short-term memory for children living in poverty. One study found that children (around the age of 14) of a low socioeconomic status showed less short-term memory capacity when taking a test when compared to their peers who were in a higher socioeconomic status.

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 (PFC).

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. Changes such as these to the amygdala and the PFC are also observed in people with mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, impulsive aggression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In these studies of nine-year-old children, it was found that the neurobiological changes took place as a result of exposure to chronic stress (such as violence, family turmoil, family separation, and below-standard living conditions). This chronic stress was observed in these same children at the ages of nine, 13, and 17.

There are environmental factors, as well, that may make some children in poverty more likely to engage in substance use—specifically when socioeconomic status is linked to lack of parental supervision, lack of emotional support, and living conditions in which drug use is prevalent (and in which there is easy access to drugs).

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 resources to address mental health challenges that may happen as a result of living in poverty:

  • 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.

Ultimately, there needs to be systemic change in order for parents living in poverty to be able to support themselves, and thus, provide care for their children. There are a number of anti-poverty programs in existence that may help reduce financial burden. These programs include:

  • Medicaid: This is a government program available in all states that covers some health expenses for people with low income.
  • Unemployment insurance: This is also a government program that offers health coverage to people who've experienced job loss.
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): Also known as "food stamps," this program is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). It provides vouchers to cover food for people with low income.
  • Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF): TANF is a program with a broad range of goals, one of which is to temporarily assist parents who are unable to care for their children.
  • Housing subsidies: Housing subsidies, also called "affordable housing," are places to live in which people making low income receive rent assistance.
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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.