New York Blog

Childhood Stress and Neurocognitive Function

Children of poor parents are more likely to be poor as adults. Until recently, it what not understood why this is the case. An article published this week in The Economist discusses the work of Dr. Gary Evans and Dr. Michelle Schamberg of Cornell University published recently in PNAS, which examines how poverty can affect neurocognitive and biological functions.

The paper proposes two hypotheses. First, an impoverished childhood will hinder the working memory of subjects when they become adults. Second, if the first hypothesis is true, stress is a crucial factor in relationship between childhood poverty and working memory in adults.

In order to measure stress in children, they used an index called allostatic load, which assays for various components of stress such as blood pressure, stress hormones (cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine), and BMI. Risk in each category is defined as being in the upper 50th percentile for that component. The average allostatic load was higher in impoverished children and this correlated with a decline in working memory as adults.

This study demonstrates that childhood stress influences a person way beyond the actual time period of the stress. In essence, these children are hardwired for stress for the rest of their lives, though it manifests in neurocognitive functions. This raises some important sociological questions. How should society deal with this issue? Can community programs such as Big Brothers Big Sisters provide children with guidance and aid in stress relief? Perhaps educating the parents is the proper approach. Local programs like the Baby College run by the Harlem Children’s Zone teaches parents in poor communities how to better parent their small children (ages 0-3).

Whatever the approach, improving the environment of an impoverished child will undoubtedly improve their future. It’s a matter of thought.

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