Poverty, the Brain and “Executive Thought”

executive thought

The number of children starting life in poverty in the UK is rising according to a report by the Commission on Social Mobility and Child Poverty.

According to government figures from 2011/12, as many as 3.5 million children in the UK (27%) were living in households with incomes 60% below the average net disposable household income after housing costs.

Theresa Marteau, Director of UK Cambridge University’s Behaviour Unit, and Associate Professor Peter Hall of the University of Waterloo in Canada, highlight the link between environment and the brain in poverty in the British Medical Journal’s Editorial.

Co-authors of Breadlines, brain, and behaviour suggest methods of loosening the link between poverty and demography by targeting both the environment and the brain’s “executive functioning” – the theorized network thought to link to the prefrontal cortex determining behaviour by inhibiting impulsive responses and focusing attention, and thought to be less well developed in children and adults living in poverty.

This lesser developed functioning, research suggest, leads to a vulnerability for those living in poverty to be less able to control negative behaviours that damage health. Theresa Marteau, co-author comments:

Given the links between poverty, brain development, and behaviour, these children start life with a higher chance than their more fortunate peers of behaving in ways that will harm their health and reduce their life expectancy.”

The association of executive functioning may contribute to higher rates of smoking, drinking, poor diet, and physical inactivity within deprived communities. The social clustering of these behaviors may explain the contrasting life expectancy in wealthy and the most deprived communties.

For example, the BBC report that Glasgow in Scotland continues to have the lowest life expectancy in the UK. Figures taken from the Office for National Statistics show that men in the city live to an average age of 71 and women to 78. This compares to 85 for men and 87 for women in the highest UK areas – Kensington and Chelsea in London.

Executive function is thought to continue to develop after childhood and can continue to be affected within adulthood. Numerous studies show that there is a significant plasticity in the prefrontal cortex suggesting that it may be possible to improve the development of executive functioning at any stage in human life.

There is a “double hit” however for those in poverty – one within the brain in terms of lesser developed executive function, and the other on the doorstep in terms of environmental triggers.

Deprived areas are typically environments which consist of triggers for poor health choices, for example easy access to nutrient-poor foods, alcohol and a limited access to physical access and green spaces.

Being born into an environment which is more likely to encourage negative behaviours, together with a reduced capacity to resist them are seen to give those in poverty a “double hit” – yet one which can be harnessed for positive interventions –

Together with interventions that target brains, those that target
environments could reduce the double hit faced by those born
into poverty: living in environments that contain more cues for
unhealthier behaviours, coupled with a reduced capacity to
inhibit responses to those cues.”

The suggestions for increasing executive functioning include aerobic exercise, computer based brain training, supplementing incomes or providing parental support programmes. This, together with eliminating environmental cues were proposed as ways to inhibit the impact of poorly developed executive functioning.

The findings of research to further develop executive functioning are yet to be proven yet researchers hope that the strategies that target the environment and the brain may work towards breaking down poverty clusters. 

The report concludes –

Although the number of children born into poverty in the UK and elsewhere is high and may be rising, a broadening array of findings from brain and behavioural sciences suggest novel targets for intervention to reduce the strength of association between “demography and destiny.”


Breadlines, brains, and behaviour

Commission on Social Mobility and Child Poverty

Glasgow has the lowest life expectancy in the UK (BBC article)

Households below average income (HBAI)

Image credit: with thanks to mzacha RGB Free Stock