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Childhood Hunger Influences Adult Personality

Update Date: Apr 12, 2013 11:50 AM EDT

Living day to day without knowing where the next meal is coming from afflicts more children within the United States than people would like to admit. Although the numbers in the states are too high, the rates in third world countries are soaring, and now, new research stress that childhood hunger must be addressed more effectively due to its negative side effects on mental health.  According to a new study done on people from Barbados, the effects of childhood hunger can last all the way to adulthood and can severely change personalities. The researchers found that infants and toddlers who were not fed well or consistently tend to develop anti social and anxious personalities.

The study was headed by Dr. Jamina Galler from Harvard Medical School and it looked at 77 children born from 1967 to 1972 who suffered from severe starvation syndromes, known as marasmus or kwashiorkor. Marasmus is a condition in which the child appears more emaciated than others due to the lack of proper nutrition and caloric intake. Kwashiorkor is noticeable when the belly starts to protrude abnormally and occurs when children do not get enough protein. These children were all hospitalized at the average age of seven months, and none of them were born underweight or premature.

The children were all a part of a hunger treatment and prevention program that helped fed them until they reached 12-years-old. The program, headed by the Barbados Nutrition Center, also did home visits to check up on these children's recovery since their hospitalizations. The study found that these children had stunted growth at the beginning of their lives, but managed to catch up to the normal growth ranges for adolescents based on the height and weight of 57 healthy classmates that never dealt with starvation.

After evaluating the mental statues of the once-starved children, the researchers found that this group of adolescents, when they reached 40-years-old, scored five-time higher on tests that measure neuroticism, which is associated with negative emotions and distress. These adults were also more likely to be less social and less willing to experience new situations. Starvation at an early age also seemed to have an effect on planning and committing. These factors can also contribute to depression.

"Poor nutrition early in life seems to predispose individuals to a suspicious personality, which may then fuel a hostile attitude toward others," a psychology professor from the University of Pennsylvania, Adrian Raine, commented.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), childhood hunger kills almost three million children throughout the world per year. Nearly 25 percent of the children worldwide suffer from stunted growth due to the lack of nutrition. Malnutrition and starvation need to be dealt with more efficiently.

The study was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

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