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Prenatal exposure to acute stress can affect cognitive function in children of low-income households

A Stanford study finds that after being exposed to a prenatal event of acute stress, children from poor households suffer negative cognitive effects.

Stress is all around us: Most of us have nearly evaded a car accident, witnessed a violent event, fallen victim to a crime, or even lost a job. When stress strikes, your heart feels as if it’s about to beat out your chest and stress hormones race into your body.

Now, imagine living through the stressful instances above, characterized as acute stresses, while pregnant. What effects can acute stress have on you, or your baby?

Stanford sociologist Florencia Torche, PhD, decided to investigate. She used a natural disaster, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake that occurred in 2005 in Tarapaca, Chile, as an isolated form of acute stress and has followed the children prenatally exposed to it since their birth.

The study appears in Demography.

As a Stanford News article explains, Torche checked in with the children, now 7 years old and beginning grade school, to conduct a series of cognitive tests that “assessed abilities such as verbal comprehension, spatial reasoning, memory and how quickly children processed information needed to perform a task.”

When Torche looked at her data from the perspective of the childrens’ socioeconomic status, the results were significant: Children exposed to the earthquake that were from poor households, and those children only, showed lower levels of cognitive ability than children in a comparable control group. There was no effect on children from middle- and upper-class families.

Torche’s study also included a set of interviews that revealed that when higher income parents noticed any social or educational weaknesses in their child, they quickly intervened by hiring tutors, signing up for structured activities, or working with teachers and the school to help their child — options that often weren't available to the lower income parents.

In the paper, Torche highlights this as a substantial barrier that could further social class disparity:

[Disadvantaged families] face substantial barriers in terms of time, economic resources and, equally important, access to social networks and mastery of cultural resources to effectively negotiate with institutions for advantages for their children.

Photo by William Stitt 

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