Poverty getting under the skin — cognitive function among young adults

We know from Prof. Wolfe’s research that poverty can result in physical deficits in brain gray matter at birth. A PHS 795 student came across an interesting article linking cumulative exposure to poverty to loss of brain function over time among young adults. Talk about a “double hit”!  They write:

I thought that this article (and corresponding study) related well to an article we read a couple of weeks ago about how poverty affects cognitive function. This article went beyond the obvious effects (lower processing speed, verbal memory, etc.) to discuss problems of premature aging and other brain problems. They also discuss how the different exposures related to poverty contribute to these issues, e.g. low income and SES related to unhealthy behaviors such as alcohol and smoking, which have negative consequences on brain function. They discussed the effects of low income on educational attainment as well, and related the implications of that with lower cognitive function. They also provided an interesting prospective due to the fact that the cohort they studied was relatively young (approximately 35-55 years old) and they were already seeing the effects of premature cognitive aging and the effects of poverty on cognitive function.




4 thoughts on “Poverty getting under the skin — cognitive function among young adults

  1. I think the “double hit” aspect of poverty that you discussed is really important and very relevant to public health. Politically, our nation is always trying to balance extremes of individualism and paternalism in terms of policy. Especially in the discussion of poverty alleviation measures, common criticisms include the government’s desire to take care of people who really need to take care of themselves. I think this study pushes back at that idea. While our policies and safety nets should encourage individual success and sustainability, the impacts of poverty on the individual’s capability to change their situation have to be considered. As this article and paper discuss, and as we learned in class, poverty decreases cognitive capability and higher brain functionality in the short term. Moreover, this reduced cognitive functioning can be linked to poorer decision making (ie, the smoking and drinking) that can perpetuate poverty, and long term poverty can also be linked to other poor health outcomes. At some point, we have to acknowledge the line that science draws between individual agency and environmental pressures. I think this article makes a strong case for why poverty is a key and direct public health issue, and the importance of targeting policies and programs to alleviate poverty.


    • This thread speaks volumes of the impact that both nature and nurture have on the growth and development of an individual. It seems that the direction of this thread is headed towards addressing poverty and ways in which it can be mitigated. Yes, poverty elicits a myriad of consequences unto those who live in such poor conditions, but reducing poverty is much easier said than done. Poverty is a symptom of our economic structure and is inherent to its design. Our current economic structure has evolved from its predecessors which also contained intrinsic flaws – all of which were generated by the minds of people, which are known to make errors.

      Let’s say that we do address poverty as a critical public health issue. Who will pay for it? If federal, state and local taxes are all increased then what happens to the spending power of the consumers? Given that we’ve discussed health as a consumer good, if each consumer’s pocket was poked with a giant hole curtesy of inflated taxes, then fewer people would be able to afford health. What would be the implication, then, on overall health?

      Furthermore, poverty does not necessarily directly foster health consequences. As we covered earlier in the semester, certain ailments or disparities in health have root causes. Addressing poverty as a critical issue of public health implies that poverty is the root cause of many health disparities. If that were true, then we’d see that people of excessive wealth had perfect health. This, however, is not the case. Therefore, while poverty is an issue, addressing its presence and reducing its consequences proves to be a task for those with the perseverance and patience of a saint. Perhaps we should address the context by which poverty degenerates its victims rather than confronting poverty has a whole.


  2. This article hits on one of the primary reasons I became so passionate about the field of public health. We are aware that SES is a crucial predictor of health outcomes and that our environment impacts us in ways our clinical care cannot hope to, but we remain at a political gridlock on policies to alleviate the burden of poverty in adults and children. This article’s discussion of the “double hit” is one that I studied extensively while interning at the Institute for Research on Poverty here on campus. The impacts poverty has on brain development over the life course is staggering and gives us a clear picture that once you have experienced poverty, the impacts of it continue long past that period of economic instability. Arguably, with the demise of the security net and reduction of social services for people experiencing poverty, we have created a negative feedback loop for families and people struggling to regain economic security. Not only does their environment damage their well-being – both physical, social, financial, etc – but it also has lasting cognitive effects on their ability to function even if they are able to secure a job, find safe housing, and begin to develop social networks and social support again. Poverty gets at the root of public health in my mind. One of my favorite factsheets from IRP is the one that outlines the impacts of poverty on the brain of children. The back calls for policy changes to better support children and families to reduce the hugely damaging impacts that economic insecurity and poverty have on a child’s and their parent’s brains. I linked it below if folks wanted to read more.



  3. This was really interesting to read, and it raises a lot of questions for me. Does the timing of the “dose” matter? I’d be very curious to know to what extent the timing of the period of poverty affects brain function. I would guess that being poor as a child is worse for your brain than being poor as an adult.

    I did find it really interesting that they tested for those that perceived they had been through poverty; this implies that it is at least partly stress-related. However, perceptions of poverty usually have a cause; for example, a doctor might feel very poor while paying for a family member’s chemotherapy. Despite having a lot of income, that doctor might be paying out enough money that they don’t have all the normal benefits of being that far above the poverty line. It would be more qualitative than quantitative, but I think it would be important to explore that avenue.

    Overall, this does highlight the importance of bringing poor people up economically to improve their health; however, the best method for doing so is unclear, and it may be that there are hidden factors beyond just poverty alone affecting these groups.


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