Tag Archives: stress

A large and growing body of research shows that poor kids grow up to have a host of physical problems as adults.

Now add psychological deficits to the list, Cornell researchers say.

Childhood poverty can cause significant psychological deficits in adulthood, according to a sweeping new study. The research, conducted by tracking participants over a 15-year period, is the first to show this damage occurs over time and in a broad range of ways.

Impoverished children in the study had more psychological distress as adults, including more antisocial conduct like aggression and bullying and more helplessness behavior, than kids from middle-income backgrounds. Poor kids also had more chronic physiological stress and more deficits in short-term spatial memory.

Gary Evans, Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Development

“What this means is, if you’re born poor, you’re on a trajectory to have more of these kinds of psychological problems,” said Gary Evans, the author of the study and the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology, and professor in the departments of design and environmental analysis, and human development.

Why? In a word, stress.

“With poverty, you’re exposed to lots of stress. Everybody has stress, but low-income families, low-income children, have a lot more of it,” Evans said. “And the parents are also under a lot of stress. So for kids, there is a cumulative risk exposure.”

Evans, a child psychologist who specializes in the effects of stress on children, is the author of “Childhood poverty and adult psychological well-being,” published Dec. 12 in the Proceedings of the National Academic of Sciences (PNAS).

The findings are important because kids who grow up in poverty are likely to stay impoverished as adults, Evans said. For example, there’s a 40 percent chance that a son’s income will be the same as his father’s income. That’s because the United States has the least social mobility of any wealthy Western democracy, he said.

“People walk around with this idea in their head that if you work hard, play by the rules, you can get ahead,” Evans said. “And that’s just a myth. It’s just not true.”

In his study, Evans tested 341 participants, all white, at ages 9, 13, 17 and 24.

Short-term spatial memory was tested by asking adult study participants to repeat increasingly complex sequences of lights and sounds by pressing four colored pads in the correct order – similar to the “Simon” game. The adults who grew up in poverty had a diminished ability to recall the sequences, compared to those who did not.

“This is an important result because the ability to retain information in short-term memory is fundamental to a host of basic cognitive skills, including language and achievement,” Evans wrote.

Although the participants were assessed on this measure only when they were adults, this test had the strongest association with childhood poverty of the four measures.

Helplessnesswas assessed by asking the participants to solve an impossible puzzle. Adults who grew up in poverty gave up 8 percent quicker than those who weren’t poor as kids. Previous research has shown chronic exposure to uncontrollable stressors – such as family turmoil and substandard housing – tends to induce helplessness.

Mental healthwas measured with a well-validated, standardized index of mental health with statements including “I argue a lot” and “I am too impatient.” Adults who grew up in poverty were more likely to agree with those questions than adults from a middle-income background.

Chronic physiological stress was tested by measuring the participants’ blood pressure, stress hormones and body mass index. Adults who grew up in poverty had a higher level of chronic physical stress throughout childhood and into adulthood.

The study has two implications, Evans said. First, early intervention to prevent these problems is more efficient and more likely to work.

“If you don’t intervene early, it’s going to be really difficult and is going to cost a lot to intervene later,” he said.

Second, increasing poor families’ incomes is the most efficient way to reduce a child’s exposure to poverty and, in turn, their risk of developing psychological problems. Evans supports the creation of a safety net, similar to Social Security’s supplemental income for the elderly and disabled. If a family is poor and has children, the federal government should provide them with supplementary income sufficient to participate in society, he said.

“It’s not true you can’t do anything about poverty. It’s just whether there’s the political will, and are people willing to reframe the problem, instead of blaming the person who is poor and – even more preposterous – blaming their children,” he said.

“This is a societal issue, and if we decide to reallocate resources like we did with the elderly and Social Security, we could change the kind of data this study is showing,” he said.

“Could we get rid of poverty? Probably not,” Evans said. “But I think we could change it dramatically.”

The research was supported by the W.T. Grant Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the National Institute for Minority Health and Health Disparities.

Relax. Breathe. It’s all small stuff. When faced with life’s daily challenges, adults who don’t maintain a positive outlook have shown elevated physiological markers for inflaming cardiovascular and autoimmune disease, according to new research by Cornell University and Penn State psychologists.

Anthony Ong

Anthony Ong

“Hassles and minor frustrations are common in day-to-day living. Our findings suggest that how people react to daily stressors may matter more … than the frequency of such stressors,” explain the researchers in “Affective Reactivity to Daily Stressors is Associated with Elevated Inflammation,” published June 8 in the journal Health Psychology and co-authored by Anthony Ong, Cornell associate professor of human development; along with Penn State researchers Nancy Sin, Jennifer Graham-Engeland and David Almeida.

While many scientists have studied how chronic stress affects human health, the researchers explained that little is known about how reactivity to daily stressors affects biomarkers of inflammation.

The study found that those people who had difficulty maintaining positive emotional engagement during times of stress appeared to be particularly at risk for elevated levels of inflammation.

The researchers surveyed nearly 870 midlife and older adults. People who experienced greater decreases in positive affect on days when stress occurred were found to have increased amounts of interleukin-6 (a protein that acts as an inflammatory or anti-inflammatory agent) and C-reactive protein (an anti-inflammatory agent). Women who experience increased negative affect when faced with minor stressors may be at particular risk of elevated inflammation.

“Previous research suggests that the chronic experience of joy and happiness may slow down the physiological effects of aging,” Ong said. “This study extends that research by showing that possessing stable levels of ‘positive affect’ may be conducive to good health, while disturbances in daily positive affect may be associated with heightened inflammatory immune responses.”

Ong explained, “These findings are novel because they point to the importance of daily positive emotion regulation that until now have largely been neglected in studies of stress and inflammation.”

By H. Roger Segelken
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, October 30, 2013

Evans

Evans

The chronic stress of childhood poverty can trigger physical changes that have lifelong psychological effects, a study of adult brains has shown.

“Some of the anxiety disorders, depression, post traumatic stress disorders, impulsive aggression and substance abuse we’re seeing in adults might be traced to a stressful childhood,” says Cornell’s Gary W. Evans, the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology.

The environmental and developmental psychologist joined researchers from three other universities to publish findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences as “Effects of childhood poverty and chronic stress on regulatory brain function in adulthood.” The 15-year study confirms something Evans has long suspected: “Early experiences of poverty become embedded in the brain. Exposure to chronic stress in early childhood – when the amygdala and prefrontal cortex are rapidly developing – produces lasting neurological changes,” he says.

The longitudinal study followed 49 rural 9-year-olds for 15 years – checking in at ages 9, 13, 17 and 24. “Even if the 24-year-olds had escaped poverty and were making a comfortable living,” Evans says, “functional magnetic resonance imaging scans of two parts of the brain that process emotion, the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, revealed neural patterns for emotion regulatory dysfunction.

“Chronic stresses of childhood poverty may make it harder to regulate your emotions and this remains whether or not you are upwardly mobile as an adult,” he adds.

The report by researchers at the University of Michigan, University of Denver, University of Illinois at Chicago and Cornell said “… children living in poverty are more likely to be exposed to chronic multiple stressors, including violence, family turmoil, separation from family members and substandard living environments.”

Pilyoung Kim, M.A. ’07, Ph.D. ’09, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Denver, is the lead author on the paper. Support for the long-term study came from the National Institutes of Health, William T. Grant Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, August 6, 2012
 
Evans

Evans

Such behavior problems in adolescence as aggression and delinquency are linked to chronic stress in early childhood, which interferes with children's development of self-control, reports a Cornell study published online in April in Developmental Psychology. 

To better understand the well-documented link between poverty and poor outcomes for children, the researchers analyzed data on risk factors, maternal responsiveness and child characteristics in 265 adolescents and their parents. 

The longitudinal study found that early exposure to the multiple risks linked with poverty -- such as poor living conditions, separation from family, single parenting and violence -- negatively affects children's self-regulatory abilities, critical skills needed to plan and control attention and behavior toward one's goals. These risks compromised children's self-regulation directly as well as indirectly when mothers could not provide sensitive, nurturing care. 

Lower self-regulation is, in turn, linked to more "externalizing" problems in adolescents, such as aggression and delinquency. "Internalizing" problems, such as depression and anxiety, were not similarly affected. 

"Our research examines the additive effects of multiple stressor exposures, rather than the typical focus on single variables such as divorce, abuse or housing," said Gary W. Evans, the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology in Cornell's College of Human Ecology. He conducted the study with lead author Stacey N. Doan, Ph.D. '10, assistant professor of psychology at Boston University, and Thomas Fuller-Rowell, Ph.D. '10, a Robert Wood Johnson postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

"One of the things that chronic stress seems to do in children is damage the body's ability to regulate the physiological response system for handling environmental demands with consequences for physical and mental health," Evans said. "By teasing apart two major subtypes of psychological well-being, internalizing and externalizing, we have shown that their predictors operate differentially." 

In other words, internalizing and externalizing problems may have different causes and be influenced by different factors. Temperament may be more predictive of internalizing problems, while environmental risk factors are more associated with externalizing problems, the authors say. 

"Overall, our results suggest that while it may not always possible to increase income or reduce all risk factors, by improving parenting skills or child self-regulation abilities we may be able to ameliorate some of the effects of poverty on children's mental health," Doan said. 

This research was funded by the W.T. Grant Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholars Program. 

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, August 9, 2012
 
Evans

Evans

 Childhood adversity is linked to chronic stress in adolescence, setting the stage for a host of physical and mental health problems, finds a new Cornell study published online in July in Psychological Science.

The longitudinal study found that the greater proportion of childhood spent in poverty, the greater number of risks children were exposed to, and this was linked to increased markers of chronic stress by the time the children were 17.

For their analysis, the researchers used survey data on 173 children that included information about family income and exposure to such risks as housing conditions, family turmoil and violence. Children's blood pressure, overnight levels of stress hormones and body mass index were measured to assess physiological changes, known as allostatic load, which are associated with chronic stress.

"While prior work has shown that childhood poverty is linked to elevated chronic stress, as indicated by allostatic load, this study adds two critical ingredients: We demonstrate this in a prospective, longitudinal design which makes the evidence stronger, and we show that the poverty-allostatic load link is explained in part by low-income children's exposure to cumulative risk factors," said lead author Gary W. Evans, the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology in Cornell's College of Human Ecology. He conducted the study with Pilyoung Kim, Ph.D. '09, now an assistant professor at the University of Denver.

"In other words, one reason why poverty leads to chronic stress is because of the confluence of risk factors poor children encounter," Evans said.

The cumulative effect of these risks can add up to levels of stress capable of damaging the developing brain and body and setting a trajectory for future disorders, the authors said.

"Poverty often leads to chaotic circumstances that make it more difficult for children to get what they need to develop optimally," Evans said. "Chaos makes it difficult to sustain predictable and increasingly complex exchanges between caregivers and the growing child. Furthermore, this chaos occurs across many of the settings in which the children's lives are embedded, such as neighborhoods and schools.

"Based on what we're learning about the harmful and long-term effects of chronic stress on child development, we need to broaden our thinking about how we can improve the life prospects of children at risk and we need to make these investments early in life before the adverse effects of stress are encoded in the developing child," he said.

This research was funded by the W.T. Grant Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, July 25, 2012
 
Anthony Ong

Anthony Ong

Evans

Evans

 Adolescents who grow up in poverty are more likely to report being treated unfairly, and this perception of discrimination is related to harmful changes in physical health, reports a new Cornell study published in the July issue of Psychological Science.

One of the first studies to explore the role of discrimination as a factor in the well-known link between poverty and poor health, the research suggests that the stresses associated with experiencing social class discrimination have a sizable negative impact.

For their analysis, the researchers used data from 272 adolescents participating in a longitudinal study on rural poverty that included questions about their perceptions of differential treatment and measured blood pressure, overnight levels of stress hormones and body mass index -- all markers of wear and tear known as allostatic load resulting from chronic overactivation of the stress response system.

As expected, poverty was associated with higher levels of allostatic load, indicated by increased body mass index, blood pressure and levels of stress hormones. The researchers found that perceived discrimination accounted for 13 percent of these negative effects of poverty on allostatic load.

"Perhaps the most interesting thing about these findings is that discrimination may have serious, long-term adverse health effects among adolescents," said author Gary W. Evans, the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology in Cornell's College of Human Ecology. He conducted the study with lead author Thomas Fuller-Rowell, Ph.D. '10, now a Robert Wood Johnson postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Anthony Ong, associate professor of human development, also in the College of Human Ecology.

"I think most of us would intuit that discrimination or prejudice is harmful and would make people feel bad, influence self-esteem, etc.," said Evans. "The fact that discrimination may also be capable of elevating chronic physiological stress in relatively healthy, young adults is potentially a very important finding. Elevated allostatic load has been linked to a litany of very serious health outcomes, including elevated chronic diseases and premature mortality."

While a growing body of research confirms disparities in health across socio-economic groups, the underlying reasons for this are still not well understood. By suggesting that social class discrimination, through its effects on the stress-response system, may be an important factor in health disparities, the new findings fill a gap in the research and may point to new approaches to improving health.

"It is surprising that social class discrimination is so ignored within the public discourse and the research literature," Fuller-Rowell said. "There is considerable attention paid to how racial stereotypes play out in daily life and influence how we think about and treat people, but these types of discussions are almost nonexistent in relation to social class stereotypes."

This needs to change, he said, so that people can begin to understand the potential negative effects of their stereotypes about wealth and social class.

This research was funded by the W.T. Grant Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholars Program.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, February 13, 2012

Loeckenhoff

Taking care of an aging or disabled loved one can be hazardous to your health. But certain personality traits appear to reduce caregivers' risk for health problems, reports a new Cornell study.

"Personality accounted for about a quarter of the variance in caregivers' mental health and about 10 percent of the variance in their physical health," said lead author Corinna Loeckenhoff, assistant professor of human development in Cornell's College of Human Ecology.

The study, published in Psychology and Aging (26:3), was co-authored with Paul Duberstein and Bruce Friedman of the University of Rochester and Paul Costa Jr. of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

To better understand what puts some caregivers at greater risk or makes them more resilient, the authors analyzed data on more than 500 informal caregivers of older adults with multiple impairments in New York, Ohio and West Virginia. Of the caregivers, 98 percent were white and 72 percent were female; their mean age was 63.

The researchers examined the links among caregivers' personality traits; self-reported health; two factors thought to affect health -- caregiver strain (feeling overloaded, worried) and self-efficacy (feeling confident in one's abilities); and the physical and mental impairment of the care recipients.

They measured five basic personality traits to assess the caregivers' tendency to be negative/anxious (neuroticism), energetic/outgoing (extraversion), inventive/curious (openness), friendly/compassionate (agreeableness) and efficient/organized (conscientiousness).

As expected, the team found personality-health links. Extraversion was positively associated with mental and physical health, for example, whereas neuroticism was negatively associated with mental and physical health. The researchers also found that both caregiver strain and self-efficacy played a role in this association between personality and health.

"We expected that self-efficacy would play an important role for subjective health, but we were surprised to see that it was much more important than caregiver strain," said Loeckenhoff. "In fact, it mediated every single significant association between personality traits and subjective health that we observed."

The authors suggest that one reason why personality traits affect health is that these traits powerfully influence caregivers' perceptions of their ability to successfully manage the daily challenges they face.

"Our findings tie in with the recent literature on resilience," said Loeckenhoff. "To understand how people deal with a challenge, it's not sufficient to focus on the sources of stress and strain. It is also critical to examine the resources that people can draw on.

"Our findings suggest that initiatives to assist caregivers could usefully include measures of personality traits to identify caregiver strengths and weaknesses and those most at risk. Interventions might also target self-efficacy beliefs because while personality traits are relatively stable over time, self-efficacy beliefs can change as a result of verbal instruction, personal experience and observing role models."

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, February 20, 2012

Depue

Depue

Personality disorders could be more effectively diagnosed by identifying and targeting the disrupted neurobiological systems where the disorders originate, report Cornell researchers.

The way that these mental illnesses are now classified -- based on particular patterns of thought and behavior -- is misguided and has little hard evidence to support it, reports Cornell neuroscientist Richard Depue and his colleague in a special issue of the Journal of International Review of Psychiatry (23:3).

"The behavioral features used to diagnose personality disorders do not coalesce into coherent disorders in any research," says Depue, professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology, who co-authored the article with graduate student Yu Fu. "As currently defined, the different personality disorders have overlapping behavioral symptoms that also merge imperceptibly with normal behavior. A diagnosis should define a coherent behavioral pattern and predict a particular course, prognosis and treatment. No personality disorder diagnosis can do that."

Their findings fly in the face of current medical practice. Nearly one in 10 Americans suffers from a personality disorder, a group of disabling conditions characterized by serious, sometimes catastrophic, problems with relationships and work. Behavioral features can vary widely, from pervasive disregard for the law and the rights of others (antisocial personality disorder) to extreme mood instability (borderline personality disorder).

The researchers drew their conclusions by conducting a detailed review of the brain systems that underlie the major human personality traits.

Humans have about six major personality traits, each with its own neurobiological foundation that influences such behaviors as how anxious or impulsive we are, Depue notes. For example, the underlying systems and associated personality traits in their model include anxiety/stress-reactivity (thought to underlie neuroticism and negative emotionality) and neural constraint (thought to underlie conscientiousness), among others. The variety of behaviors associated with personality disorders arise from the influence of an individual's genetic make-up and environment on neurobiological functioning, they say.

In their multidimensional model, a person's personality traits can be plotted in three-dimensional space where the axes represent the underlying neurobehavioral systems. The patterns of behavior associated with personality disorders emerge from the interaction of extremely high or low values or levels of normal traits; such extremes lead to impaired interactions, they say.

"Our model links personality traits with the underlying neurobiology, which provides a better framework for understanding how and why personality disorders develop and how they can be treated," he says. "It allows us to better predict interventions, such as certain drugs and/or environmental interventions, which may be of benefit. We can also start thinking of treatments that modify multiple neurobiological variables, rather than just one or two."

And recent discoveries in neuroscience point to the important role environment plays, particularly during early childhood, in how genes are expressed, Depue says. "So, risks for personality disorders can be either magnified or reduced by the interaction of the individual's circumstances with their genetic make-up, in a process called epigenetics. We see evidence for this in personality disorders, which are much more prevalent in those who have suffered from a variety of childhood stresses and abuse."

Their theoretical analysis has implications for the criteria used for classifying personality disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It also contributes to a growing body of evidence that calls for a rethinking of the approach to classifying these illnesses, based on the underlying biochemical and neural processes that result in the symptoms.

The research was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

By Susan Kelley
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, January 30, 2012

Evans

Evans

The more ongoing stress children are exposed to, the greater the odds they will become obese by adolescence, reports Cornell environmental psychologist Gary Evans in the journal Pediatrics (129:1).

Nine-year-old children who were chronically exposed to such stressors as poverty, crowded housing and family turmoil gain more weight and were significantly heavier by age 13 than they would have been otherwise, the study found. The reason, Evans and his co-authors suggest, is that ongoing stress makes it tougher for children to control their behavior and emotions -- or self-regulate. That, in turn, can lead to obesity by their teen years.

"These children are heavier, and they gain weight faster as they grow up. A very good predictor of adults' ability to follow healthy habits is their ability to self-regulate. It seems reasonable that the origins of that are probably in childhood. This [research] is starting to lay that out," said Evans, the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology in the Departments of Design and Environmental Analysis and of Human Development in Cornell's College of Human Ecology.

Evans conducted the study with former students Thomas Fuller-Rowell, Ph.D. '10, now a Robert Wood Johnson postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Stacey Doan, Ph.D. '10, an assistant professor of psychology at Boston University.

The researchers measured the height and weight of 244 9-year-olds in rural New York state and calculated their various physical and psycho-social stressors -- for example, exposure to violence, living in a substandard house or having no access to such resources as books. They also measured the children's ability to delay gratification by offering them a choice between waiting for a large plate of candy versus having a medium plate immediately. The researchers measured the children's height and weight again four years later.

While the study doesn't prove that a child's inability to delay gratification causes her to gain weight, there's strong evidence to suggest that it does, Evans said. First, previous studies have shown that chronic stress is linked to weight gain in children and teenagers, and that children eat more sugary, fatty foods when stressed.

Second, there's a plausible neurocognitive mechanism that may help better understand this behavior, Evans said. "There's some evidence that parts of the brain that are vulnerable and sensitive to stress, particularly early in life, are some of the same parts involved in this self-regulatory behavior."

The study has implications for education policies such as No Child Left Behind that emphasize testing cognitive abilities but ignore children's ability to control their behavior and emotions, Evans said.

"A child's ability to self-regulate is not just predictive of things like whether you're going to have trouble with weight -- it predicts grades, graduating from high school. A 4-year-old's ability to self-regulate even predicts SAT scores. This is a very powerful phenomenon," he said.

The findings also have implications for interventions and policies aimed at reducing individual stressors. "If it's the cumulative impact of stress on these families that is important, that means an intervention that only looks at one stressor -- say, just drug abuse, which is how most interventions are designed -- is doomed to fail," Evans concluded.

The research was supported by the W.T. Grant Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. Mac Arthur Foundation, Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Evans

Evans

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, October 31, 2011

Chronic stress in childhood can hurt children and teens physically, mentally and emotionally. However, having a sensitive, responsive mother can reduce at least one of these harmful effects, reports a new Cornell study. It shows that such moms can help buffer the effects of chronic stress on teens' working memories.

The study, published in Development and Psychopathology (23), sheds light on why some children are surprisingly resilient and seemingly unharmed despite growing up in difficult, high-stress situations. It was authored by Stacey N. Doan, Ph.D. '10, assistant professor of psychology at Boston University, and environmental psychologist Gary Evans, professor of design and environmental analysis and of human development in the College of Human Ecology.

Earlier research by Evans showed that the chronic high stress of children living in poverty was linked to working memory deficits in young adults. Working memory -- the ability to temporarily hold information in mind -- is critical for tasks like learning and problem-solving, he said.

The new study used longitudinal data on children and families in rural upstate New York when the children were about 9, 13 and 17 years old. More than half of the families were low-income. Wave 1 included 1,342 children, wave 2 involved 195 and wave 3 involved 214. Allostatic load -- a measure of stress-induced changes in neuroendocrine hormonal systems, cardiovascular responses and metabolism that indicate the severity of wear and tear that cumulative strain puts on organs and tissues -- was assessed in the 9- and 13-year-olds. Maternal responsiveness was measured when the children were 13 years of age, by rating during games such maternal behaviors as cooperation, helping and adaptability to their child's mood and abilities, and by their children's perception of how much their mothers helped with homework, were willingness to talk when needed, spent time doing enjoyable things with the child or knowing where the child was after school. Children's working memory was assessed when they were 17.

The study confirmed that low-income children with higher levels of allostatic load tended to have worse working memory -- but only when maternal responsiveness was medium to low.

"Although high chronic stress in childhood appears to be problematic for working memory among young adults, if during the childhood period you had a more responsive, sensitive parent, you have some protection," Evans said.

Next, the researchers plan to determine whether allostatic load has direct effects on brain areas associated with working memory and to explore whether maternal responsiveness buffers some of the effects of chronic stress via better self-regulation/coping strategies in their children or by influencing levels of stress hormone, for example.

Evans noted that the study underscores the potential for interventions to break the poverty-stress-working memory link, which may be one pathway by which children growing up in poverty fall behind in school. The authors also emphasize, however, that parenting is not sufficient or even the best way to overcome the adverse consequences of childhood poverty. The impacts of poverty, they said, far outweigh the protective effects of maternal responsiveness. Ultimately poverty must be dealt with by more equitable and generous sharing of resources throughout society.

The research was supported by the W.T. Grant Foundations and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

Related Links:
College of Human Ecology
Gary Evans