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Low income families affect children’s cognitive functioning, new study finds out

Researchers have found in a new study that children of low income families who bear family instability and emotionally unavailable caregivers, have learning and cognitive difficulties.

The research was done by University of Rochester, University of Minnesota, and Mount Hope of Family Center with support from the National Institute of Mental Health.

They have found out that cortisol, also regarded as the stress hormone is linked to the cognitive abilities in children, living in poverty.

A research on 201 mother-child pairs from low income group, performed at Mount Hope of Family, followed the level of stress hormone among children of ages 2, 3 and 4. “It found that specific forms of family adversity are linked to both elevated and low levels of cortisol in children. Children with either elevated or low cortisol levels also had lower than average cognitive ability at age 4,” an official statement by University of Rochester said.

Jennifer Suor, a PhD candidate in clinical psychology in University of Rochester said that they were basically interested in seeing if “specific risk factors of children living in poverty might be related to children’s cortisol level.”

She added, “Then we added to see if the hormone levels are predictive of significant differences in the children’s ability to think.”

Coauthor, Melissa L. Sturge-Apple, assistant professor of psychology said that the process of how cortisol affects the brain’s cognitive abilities is still unknown, however researchers conjectured that “too much cortisol can have toxic effects on parts of the brain” that are significant for cognitive functioning while “too little might hinder the body’s ability to recruit the biological resources necessary for optimal cognitive functioning.”

Suor stated that “moderate levels of cortisol” is good for the body as it helps in drafting “important cognitive resources like memory and the ability to reason.”

The research found that children living with both family instability and emotionally unavailable caregivers (mainly mother) had high cortisol level at age 2, while those who lived with only family instability had below average cortisol level at the same age.
“They remained relatively stable over the three years,” Suor said about the unchanged cortisol level which they test from a cheek swab.

Family instability included change of residence, frequent change of caregivers or household members.

Suor said that their study has shown that “preventative interventions” can help mothers to raise their children “in ways that may lead to improvements in their children’s cortisol.”
Poverty is a major concern these days. A report by EurekAlert has said that “about a fifth of all U.S children live in poverty.” The statistics increase when we move to Africa where over 40 percent people live in poor conditions.

Adding to the fact that poverty is taking away several lives every year, this study shows that it needs to be handled right from the beginning in order to ruin any form of harm on children.

These images show profiles of fatty acids (a) and growth hormone (b) during normal sleep (black lines) and restricted sleep (red lines) in 19 participants. CREDIT: J. Broussard and co-authors

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