A new study published in the July 20 issue of JAMA Pediatrics revealed that poverty affects children’s brain development, emotional health and academic achievement. Researchers who conducted the study identified changes in brain architecture that can lead to lifelong problems with depression, learning difficulties and limitations in coping with stress.
“The longer children live in poverty, the greater their academic deficits,” researchers wrote. “These patterns persist to adulthood, contributing to lifetime-reduced occupational attainment.”
In the U.S., 22% of children are living in poverty, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty.
The longitudinal cohort study analyzed 823 magnetic resonance imaging scans of 389 typically developing children and adolescents aged 4 to 22 years from the National Institutes of Health Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study of Normal Brain Development with complete sociodemographic and neuroimaging data.
Participants were screened for various factors suspected to adversely affect brain development. Data were collected from November 2001 to August 2007 from six sites across the U.S., assessed at baseline, and followed up at 24-month intervals for a total of three periods.
Each study center used community-based sampling to reflect regional and overall U.S. demographics of income, race and ethnicity based on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development definitions of area income. One quarter of households reported total family income below 200% of the federal poverty level.
Results showed that low-income children had irregular brain development and lower standardized test scores, with as much as an estimated 20% gap in achievement explained by developmental lags in several critical areas of the brain, including total gray matter and the frontal lobe, temporal lobe and hippocampus, researchers stated in the study.
“Regional gray matter volumes of children below 1.5 times the federal poverty level were 3 to 4 percentage points below the developmental norm,” researchers wrote.
Findings suggest teaching nurturing skills to parents, particularly those living below the poverty line, may provide a lifetime of benefits for children, according to the study.
Researchers concluded interventions aimed at improving children’s environments may also alter the link between childhood poverty and deficits in cognition and academic achievement.
“The influence of poverty on children’s learning and achievement is mediated by structural brain development,” researchers wrote in the study. “To avoid long-term costs of impaired academic functioning, households below 150% of the federal poverty level should be targeted for additional resources aimed at remediating early childhood environments.”
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