Growing up in poverty changes a person’s brain in long-lasting ways that harm emotional processing and increase a child’s odds of mental health problems. The neurological impacts of childhood poverty may even include higher mortality rates, according to a new study by scientists at the University of Denver.
The study tested adult subjects’ emotional responses to negative images. The half of the study group who grew up poor were “less able than other participants to minimize their emotional reactions to negative images,” according to Bloomberg. That reduced emotional processing ability carries serious consequences, according to lead author Pilyoung Kim of the University of Denver Family and Child Neuroscience Lab. “Living in poverty at a young age can cause long-lasting changes in brain development,” Kim said, “which contribute to difficulties in regulating of emotions and future devastating health outcomes, including mental illness and high mortality and morbidity in adulthood.”
While this study examined what growing up poor does to a person over decades, other research released over the summer zeroed in on the near-term consequences of poverty on adult brains. The stress of poverty has the same effect on a person’s cognitive ability as pulling an all-nighter every night, knocking as much as 13 percent off of a person’s IQ.
These studies add to the evidence that economic hardship has direct negative consequences on people that cannot be easily shrugged off through simply trying harder. Children’s cognitive ability is also undermined by the experience of poverty, which a 2009 study found hurts the development of the working memory that is key to everyday mental tasks. Poverty is more closely linked to mental illness than exposure to warfare, according to a study published earlier this year. Even those students whose mental health survives growing up poor face higher risks of high blood pressure and other physical health problems.