Skip navigation

NLM Director’s Comments Transcript
Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function: 11/12/2013

Picture of Dr. Lindberg

Greetings from the National Library of Medicine and MedlinePlus.gov

Regards to all our listeners!

I'm Rob Logan, Ph.D. senior staff National Library of Medicine for Donald Lindberg, M.D, the Director of the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Here is what's new this week in MedlinePlus.listen

A pioneering set of studies, recently published in Science, are the first to suggest a strong association between income and cognitive capabilities.

Published together (and designed to be complimentary) the experimental and field-observation studies suggest for the first time that poverty (or low income) impedes the levels of cognitive function among adults. Cognitive function refers to memory, learning, and comprehension abilities.

In the authors’ U.S.-based experimental study, wealthier and lower income adults were asked to think about four scenarios which presented common financial challenges. In one scenario, participants were asked if they would get a loan, pay in full, or forego service when their automobile had continuing breakdowns. After thinking about how they might resolve the problems presented within the scenarios (that differed in their degree of complexity and consideration), participants took two unrelated, well-established cognitive assessment tests.

Overall, lower income persons scored significantly lower than higher income participants on all cognitive tests after exposure to the more complex scenarios. The two groups scored similarly after completing a financially less complicated challenge. 

In a second series of financial scenarios and challenges, the authors removed most mathematical calculations to offset math anxiety among the participants. However even in the second experimental condition, the authors found higher income persons scored significantly higher overall than lower income participants on the cognitive tests.

In the field study, the authors followed 464 sugarcane farmers in India before and after annual harvests. The sugarcane farmers had a similar low-income baseline and experienced one short period of comparative financial prosperity within an otherwise, challenging year. Participants were interviewed before and after harvests and took tests that determined their levels of physiological stress.

Before the harvest, most participants reported they had to take out loans and pawn household items to meet expenses. Participants reported they experienced problems paying routine bills, and noted other difficulties coping with financial challenges. In contrast, few of the participants reported similar problems during the sugarcane harvest and immediate post-harvest.

 The findings suggest most participants experienced more financial pressures (lower incomes) and higher stress before the harvest and were more prosperous and less stressed during the period after their sugarcane crop was sold. More importantly, reusing one of the cognitive tests from the experimental study, the authors found the scores among study participants improved significantly during the harvest and immediate post-harvest periods.

The authors explain the differences in cognitive test scores (pre and post harvest) remained highly significant after carefully controlling for the impact of stress levels.

The authors note the overall findings suggest low income (or poverty) creates significant distractions that undermine concentration, learning and memory. The authors conclude (and we quote): ‘The data reported here suggest a different perspective on poverty. Being poor means coping not just with a shortfall of money, but with a concurrent shortfall of cognitive resources. The poor, in this view, are less capable not because of inherent traits, but because the very context of poverty imposes load and impedes cognitive capacity. The findings, in other words, are not about poor people, but about any people who find themselves poor’ (end of quote).

The authors conclude the findings suggest the impacts of economic volatility and low income are more incapacitating than previously appreciated. Among an array of suggestions derived from the findings, the authors recommend interventions to improve health outcomes for low-income citizens should be more user friendly, reinforced by consistent reminders, and should be timed to launch during more prosperous eras.

Meanwhile, information about how to nourish your brain (from the American Academy of Family Physicians) is provided in MedlinePlus.gov’s mild cognitive impairment health topic page. MedlinePlus.gov’s mild cognitive impairment health topic page provides information about how to cope with mild cognitive impairment (from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University) in the ‘coping’ section.

MedlinePlus.gov’s mild cognitive impairment health topic page additionally provides links to the latest pertinent journal research articles, which are available in the ‘journal articles’ section. Links to clinical trials that may be occurring in your area are available in the ‘clinical trials’ section. You can sign up to receive updates about mild cognitive impairment as they become available on MedlinePlus.gov.

To find MedlinePlus.gov’s mild cognitive impairment health health topic page, type ‘cognitive impairment’ in the search box on MedlinePlus.gov’s home page. Then, click on ‘mild cognitive impairment (National Library of Medicine).’ MedlinePlus.gov also contains health topic pages on memory.

Before I go, this reminder… MedlinePlus.gov is authoritative. It's free. We do not accept advertising …and is written to help you.

To find MedlinePlus.gov, just type in 'MedlinePlus.gov' in any web browser, such as Firefox, Safari, Netscape, Chrome or Explorer. To find Mobile MedlinePlus.gov, just type 'Mobile MedlinePlus' in the same web browsers.

We encourage you to use MedlinePlus and please recommend it to your friends. MedlinePlus is available in English and Spanish. Some medical information is available in 43 other languages.

Your comments about this or any of our podcasts are always welcome. We welcome suggestions about future topics too!

Please email Dr. Lindberg anytime at: NLMDirector@nlm.nih.gov

That's NLMDirector (one word) @nlm.nih.gov

A written transcript of recent podcasts is available by typing 'Director's comments' in the search box on MedlinePlus.gov's home page.

The National Library of Medicine is one of 27 institutes and centers within the National Institutes of Health. The National Institutes of Health is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

A disclaimer — the information presented in this program should not replace the medical advice of your physician. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any disease without first consulting with your physician or other health care provider.

It was nice to be with you. I look forward to meeting you here next week.