How poverty can harm a child’s mind and body

TheProvince.com – Business
October 17, 2010.   By Cheryl Chan, The Province

In 2008, one out of 10 children in B.C. — roughly 87,000 — lived in a low-income household.

While B.C.’s child-poverty rate is on the decline, it remains the highest in Canada.

At first glance, the effects of poverty on children are obvious. Secondhand clothes. No cool toys. An extra reliance on school lunches. Missing out on the after-school Slurpee.

Look below the surface and the loss of potential wreaked by poverty becomes evident.

Less money means fewer books, fewer field trips, fewer science experiments, less access to sports, less or no college tuition.

Extracurricular activities and enrichment programs are more likely to be out of reach, leaving burgeoning interests and talents uncultivated.

But dig even deeper and an alarming trend emerges: Experts say poverty can lead to serious, long-lasting health problems that can follow a child into adulthood, even when socio-economic conditions change later in life, and cost the government millions in health costs.

Here is how poverty can shape the physical body of a child.

TEETH

Early childhood caries, a severe form of tooth decay affecting kids below age six, is more common among children from low-income families and First Nations, immigrant and refugee children. Left untreated, the decay can lead to pain, abscesses, infection, eating difficulties, malnutrition, slower growth rates, low self-esteem and other problems.

IN THE CELLS

It starts in the genes. The emerging field of epigenetics, or the study of the impact of the environment on genes, shows that poverty and outside stresses can cause damage to cells, especially to a fetus or during the early years. This can damage the immune system and negatively affect stress response and emotion and impulse control.

BRAIN

Poverty can change the brain. The early years of a child’s life are the greatest window of opportunity for learning new skills and abilities. Young children who grow up impoverished, without security and lacking stimulation can end up with faulty “wiring” in the brain, which can influence health, well-being and coping abilities.

-According to a national study, low-income kids aged four to 11 are more likely to exhibit indirect aggression than children from wealthy families (40 per cent vs. 25 per cent) and are more likely to be hyperactive (20 per cent vs. 12 per cent).

-A U.K. survey found that one in six children from disadvantaged families will have developmental disorders such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder compared to only one in 20 in richer families.

-A UBC study found that children from low-income backgrounds have brains similar to those of stroke victims, with their prefrontal cortex -the area of the brain responsible for cognitive decision-making, problem-solving and moderating social behaviour -showing inhibited growth.

LUNGS

Children from lower socio-economic groups are more susceptible to pneumonia and tuberculosis and are twice as likely to develop asthma, the most common chronic respiratory condition among Canadian children. The risk increases the longer the child lives in poverty: Kids in chronic poverty have rates approximately 30 per cent higher than the average.

STOMACH

Children from poor families are more likely to suffer from poor nutrition and malnourishment. Stress causes the body to deplete nutrients, leaving none to go around for thinking and learning new things.

OVERALL BODY

-Babies born to poor families are almost twice as likely to be born smaller, thinner and weaker than average, with increased risk of hospitalization, below-normal growth and childhood illnesses.

-A study published in the International Journal of

Obesity found children from poor families are twice as likely to be overweight or obese compared to affluent kids (12.8 per cent vs. 6.4 per cent).

-Reasons include less access to a healthy food supply, limited access to recreational facilities such as playgrounds and parks, and increased safety concerns.

-Obesity is linked to asthma, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

-UBC researchers found disadvantaged kids are more likely to be plagued with chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers, regardless of current income or lifestyle. This is because stress hormones -the defensive fight-or-flight mode -that kick in to help poor kids deal with hardships also make them more susceptible to inflammation and damage to the immune system.

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