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Growing Up in Poverty Affects the Brain Differently Than We Thought


Why Global Citizens Should Care
Vulnerable children living in poverty need access to education to overcome their economic circumstances and improve their health. To end poverty, we must ensure the next generation can learn. You can join us and take action here.  

A child who grows up in a low-income household could have a worse memory after the age of 50, the Atlantic reports

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal published a new study on the correlation between socioeconomic status and health. Researchers looked at a database of 24,066 people in the US over 50 whose cognitive function had been measured every two years from 2004 to 2015 with memory tests — and found that people who grew up in wealthier homes performed better as they got older. 

Take Action: 263 Million Children Need Help Getting In The Classroom

Previous research has shown there are three factors to consider when examining how childhood poverty affects the brain, but PNAS found they might be working together to affect low cognitive functioning in adulthood.

The first factor is exposure to enriching experiences. Children who grow up in low-income families, for example, might miss out on cognitively stimulating extracurricular activities that lead to more advanced brain development later in life, according to the Atlantic. 

Then there are the different paths people are put on due to their financial situation. Those who grow up in low-income families aren’t put on a path to attend the best colleges, get competitive jobs, or have a better quality of life that protects brain health. 

Lastly, certain damaging childhood experiences have long-term lasting effects. When childhood trauma piles up, it worsens academic performance, eventually causing cognitive decline. With 1 in 5 children living in areas plagued by conflict and war, this puts a significant portion of a generation at risk. 

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The PNAS report shows all these factors can contribute to a decline in cognitive functioning –– and having one advantage doesn’t cancel out the impact. For example, if a child from a low-income home goes to college, that doesn’t mean they’re immune to memory loss in old age if they also experienced trauma. 

While people with wealthier childhoods who participated in the study had a higher level of cognitive skills, they did see a faster decline of their cognitive abilities later in life. If brain function and memory break down regardless of economic status, PNAS said the goal should be to postpone the decline as long as possible. 

The report offers suggestions for preventing cognitive decline in adulthood, such as encouraging low-income children to obtain higher education and lifting them out of poverty. 

With 72 million children around the world living in poverty who aren’t in school, these actions could help give an entire generation a more promising future.