Childhood stress can affect ability to make decisions

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

If you spend much time online, especially on a subpar Internet connection, you know the problem.

You’re trying to view a cat video link from your cousin or stream an old Star Trek video, and you see the annoying “loading” message on your screen.

Now imagine your computer or smartphone is operating a young child’s brain instead of providing entertainment.

And, imagine every “buffering” message is burned permanently into your device’s memory chip, slowing down every “House of Cards” season you try to binge watch in the future.

More and more research is showing “bandwidth” isn’t just a telecommunications issue. The brains of children who are raised in poverty devote so much time to dealing with hunger and emotional stress that the pre-frontal cortex, which deals with problem-solving, goal-setting and task execution, doesn’t have a chance to develop properly.

That seems to offer one explanation for the “cycle of poverty” that seems to be so prevalent in segments of our society.

The theory is that when the limbic system in the center of the brain, which processes emotions, emotional responses and long-term memory, is constantly sending fear and stress messages to the prefrontal cortex, the latter part of the brain doesn’t have the “bandwidth” to solve problems, set goals and complete tasks in the most efficient ways.

That happens to all of us at times, of course, but people in poverty have the everyday stress of finding their next meal, avoiding homelessness or dealing with crime, addiction or other interpersonal issues.

There are channels available for help, but limited problem-solving abilities can prevent those in poverty from taking the decisive action required.

Schools and social services are usually on the front line, with courts and law enforcement often involved as well.

But food — from school programs, to food stamps to the McCook Pantry, the weekly Feeding the Flock suppers at McCook’s Memorial United Methodist Church and mobile pantries like the one conducted Saturday in Bartley — is the central weapon against the debilitating stress associated with poverty.

In a region of agricultural abundance like Southwest Nebraska, it’s a sad truth that children still go to bed hungry.

Sadder still that hunger could prevent them, later in life, from making the wise choices that could change the course of their lives and those of their own children.

That makes it all the more important that we support efforts to make sure nutritious food makes its way to those who need it most.


For a scholarly article on childhood stress and brain development, visit http://bit.ly/2qaqHn6

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