3 Studies: Poverty Is Toxic to Childhood Learning
Poverty as a Childhood Disease
In May of last year, the New York Times published an article by pediatrician Dr. Perri Klass, “Poverty as a Childhood Disease.” She writes, “Recently, there has been a lot of focus on the idea of toxic stress, in which a young child’s body and brain may be damaged by too much exposure to so-called stress hormones, like cortisol and norepinephrine. When this level of stress is experienced at an early age, and without sufficient protection, it may actually reset the neurological and hormonal systems, permanently affecting children’s brains and even, we are learning, their genes.”
The Chronic Stress of Poverty: Toxic to Children
An article published January 12 as part of The Shriver Report, “The Chronic Stress of Poverty: Toxic to Children.” by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, cited a CDC study of “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs), including abuse, neglect, exposure to domestic violence, and household dysfunction such as parental substance use, mental illness, incarceration, or divorce. The study found that repeated stress and the resulting release of stress hormones damages youngsters' immune systems and their developing brains, particularly the pre-frontal cortex, which controls things like reasoning, impulse control, memory and planning.
Harris describes one mechanism that leads to damage: “The principal actor in the link between ACEs and disease is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal, or HPA, axis governing the body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ response…. The HPA axis releases a surge of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which creates a cascade of chemical reactions in the brain and body. When activated occasionally…this system bypasses our thinking brain, the prefrontal cortex, and activates the primitive reactions that can get us out of the way of a mortal threat. The problem comes when the system is overtaxed by repeated, intense, or chronic stress. That cascade of chemicals and reactions goes from saving one’s life to damaging one’s health. As it turns out, children are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of chronic stress and trauma and the resulting bath of stress hormones, because their young brains, nervous systems, and organs are just developing.”
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