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Childhood Poverty, Stress Induce Mental Disorders in Adolescence

Update Date: Aug 10, 2012 09:25 AM EDT

How we spend our childhood and the experiences we gain at a tender age stay with us for the rest of our lives. A new study has linked childhood adversity to chronic stress during teenage, which could cause many a physical and mental health issues.

According to the study, the more time spent during childhood in poverty, the greater the risks the children are exposed to and this is linked to increased markers of chronic stress by the time the children are 17. 

For the study, the researchers quizzed 173 children about their 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 in the press release.

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

According to the authors, all the risk factors put together can add up to levels of stress which could cause damage to the developing brain of the children. Along with physiological damage this can cause disorders in children later in life.  

"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 published online in July in Psychological Science.

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