The International Convention of Psychological Science took place in the Netherlands in March, 2015, with 2,300 attendees from more than 75 countries. In a symposium on cognition, behavior and development in socioeconomic contexts, the researchers discussed findings on the psychological effects of living with few resources and low socioeconomic status versus abundance and security. Cynthia Garcia Coll, a child development researcher said, “How much more do we have to talk about the fact that poverty is not good for human beings?”
Research has shown that low income people who also experience discrimination, have limited access to health care and have high exposure to crime are highly susceptible to physical and mental disorders, low attainment educationally and low IQ scores.
In 2011, poverty levels in the U.S. were at 15 percent, the highest in 20 years. Poverty is defined as the threshold below which families or individuals are considered to be lacking the resources to meet the basic needs for healthy living; having insufficient income to provide the food, shelter and clothing needed to preserve health.
Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford researcher and neuroendocrinologist demonstrated how physical effects of poverty in poor children. For a time, doctors mistakenly believed that the normal thymus in children should be small, as that’s what they found in autopsies of children. However, because the bodies autopsied at that time were only of poor people, the gland was small due to the stress of poverty. In a normal child, the thymus is large and grows smaller with age.
The thymus gland is situated in the chest behind the sternum or breastbone and manufactures cells to boost immunity. It shrinks with age and disappears at puberty, but its effects are felt for life.
A study at Boston Children’s Hospital revealed that psychological and physical neglect produces measurable changes in the brains of children. The study involved 26 abandoned Romanian children living in institutions who experienced social, emotional, language and developmental neglect. The children were compared with 23 children who had been placed in good foster care at an early age and 20 children who grew up within their own families.
The children were examined at age 30 months, 42 months, 54 months and eight and 12 years. The results indicated a significant link between neglect in early life and changes in the white matter of the brain, which enables nerve fibers to communicate. According to the study, published online January 26 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, the changes were less pronounced in children who were initially neglected but placed in good foster homes at an early age.
The researchers emphasized the importance of life experience in the brain development of children, noting that children raised in institutions often have poorer brain development than other children.
According to Sapolsky, the real problem is income inequality, and addressing that problem will do more to protect the brains of poor children than waiting for a recovering economy to help them. Sapolsky said, “The surest way to feel poor is to be made to feel poor, to be endlessly made aware of the haves when you are a have not.”
Long-term poverty can lead to depression and substance abuse, a form of self-medication to relieve misery. For those struggling with mental health problems or substance abuse problems, help is available. Sovereign Health is a behavioral health treatment provider with a teen-specific location in Rancho San Diego. For further information, please call our 24/7 helpline.
Written by Veronica McNamara, Sovereign Health Group writer
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