The study involved 1,292 children followed from birth, whose cortisol levels were assessed at 7, 15, and 24 months. Three tests related to executive functions were given at age 3. Measures of parenting quality (maternal sensitivity, detachment, intrusiveness, positive regard, negative regard, and animation, during interaction with the child) and household environment (household crowding, safety and noise levels) were assessed during the home visits.
Earlier studies have indicated that a poor environment in and of itself is stressful to children, and is associated with increased cortisol levels. Interestingly, in one Mexican study, preschool children in poor homes participating in a conditional cash transfer scheme showed reduced cortisol levels.
This study found that children in lower-income homes received less positive parenting and had higher levels of cortisol in their first two years than children in slightly better-off homes. Higher levels of cortisol were associated with lower levels of executive function abilities, and to a lesser extent IQ, at 3 years.
African American children were more affected than White children on every measure. Cortisol levels were significantly higher; executive function and IQ significantly lower; ratings of positive parenting significantly lower and ratings of negative parenting significantly higher. Maternal education was significantly lower, poverty greater, homes more crowded and less safe.
The model derived from this data shows executive function negatively predicted by cortisol, while the effect on IQ is marginal. However, both executive function and IQ are predicted by negative parenting, positive parenting, and household risk (although this last variable has a greater effect on IQ than executive function). Neither executive function nor IQ was directly predicted by maternal education, ethnicity, or poverty level. Cortisol level was inversely related to positive parenting, but was not directly related to negative parenting or household risk.
Indirectly (according to this best-fit model), poverty was related to executive function through negative parenting; maternal education was related to executive function through negative parenting and to a lesser extent positive parenting; both poverty and maternal education were related to IQ through positive parenting, negative parenting, and household risk; African American ethnicity was related to executive function through negative parenting and positive parenting, and to IQ through negative parenting, positive parenting, and household risk. Cortisol levels were higher in African American children and this was unrelated to poverty level or maternal education.
Executive function (which includes working memory, inhibitory control, and attention shifting) is vital for self-regulation and central to early academic achievement. A link between cortisol level and executive function has previously been shown in preschool children, as well as adults. The association partly reflects the fact that stress hormone levels affect synaptic plasticity in the prefrontal cortex, where executive functions are carried out. This is not to say that this is the only brain region so affected, but it is an especially sensitive one. Chronic levels of stress alter the stress response systems in ways that impair flexible regulation.
What is important about this study is this association between stress level and cognitive ability at an early age, that the effect of parenting on cortisol is associated with positive aspects rather than negative ones, and that the association between poverty and cognitive ability is mediated by both cortisol and parenting behavior — both positive and negative aspects.
A final word should be made on the subject of the higher cortisol levels in African Americans. Because of the lack of high-income African Americans in the sample (a reflection of the participating communities), it wasn’t possible to directly test whether the effect is accounted for by poverty. So this remains a possibility. It is also possible that there is some genetic difference. But it also might reflect other sources of stress, such as that relating to prejudice and stereotype threat.
Based on mother’s ethnic status, 58% of the families were Caucasian and 42% African American. Two-thirds of the participants had an income-to-need ratio (estimated total household income divided by the 2005 federal poverty threshold adjusted for number of household members) less than 200% of poverty. Just over half of the mothers weren’t married, and most of them (89%) had never been married. The home visits at 7, 15, and 24 months lasted at least an hour, and include a videotaped free play or puzzle completion interaction between mother and child. Cortisol samples were taken prior to an emotion challenge task, and 20 minutes and 40 minutes after peak emotional arousal.
Long-term genetic effects of childhood environment
The long-term effects of getting off to a poor start are deeper than you might believe. A DNA study of forty 45-year-old males in a long-running UK study has found clear differences in gene methylation between those who experienced either very high or very low standards of living as children or adults (methylation of a gene at a significant point in the DNA reduces the activity of the gene). More than twice as many methylation differences were associated with the combined effect of the wealth, housing conditions and occupation of parents (that is, early upbringing) than were associated with the current socio-economic circumstances in adulthood (1252 differences as opposed to 545).
The findings may explain why the health disadvantages known to be associated with low socio-economic position can remain for life, despite later improvement in living conditions. The methylation profiles associated with childhood family living conditions were clustered together in large stretches of DNA, which suggests that a well-defined epigenetic pattern is linked to early socio-economic environment. Adult diseases known to be associated with early life disadvantage include coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and respiratory disorders.
(2011). Salivary Cortisol Mediates Effects of Poverty and Parenting on Executive Functions in Early Childhood.
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Fernald, L. C., & Gunnar, M. R. (2009). Poverty-alleviation program participation and salivary cortisol in very low-income children. Social Science and Medicine, 68, 2180–2189.
(2011). Associations with early-life socio-economic position in adult DNA methylation.
International Journal of Epidemiology.