TORONTO - Dealing with poverty takes up so much mental energy that the poor have less brain power for making decisions and taking steps to overcome their financial difficulties, a study suggests.
The research, published last week in the journal Science, concludes that a person's cognitive abilities can be diminished by such nagging concerns as hanging on to a place to live and having enough money to feed their families.
As a result, there is less "mental bandwidth" left over for education, training, time-management and other steps that could help break the cycle of poverty, the researchers contend.
"Previous accounts of poverty have blamed the poor for their personal failings, or an environment that is not conducive to success," said Jiaying Zhao of the University of British Columbia, who led the study, conducted while she was a graduate student at Princeton University.
"We're arguing that being poor can impair cognitive functioning, which hinders individuals' ability to make good decisions and can cause further poverty," she said.
The study had two parts. In the first, about 400 people at a New Jersey mall were randomly selected to take part in a number of standard cognitive and logic tests. The participants' annual family income ranged from $20,000 to $160,000, with a median of $70,000.
Subjects took the computer-based tests after being presented with a hypothetical financial problem that they would later have to solve: how they would come up with the money to pay for having their car fixed when the cost was either $150 or $1,500.
With the lower amount on their minds, those with low incomes fared as well on the tests as better-off participants. But when the amount was 10 times higher, low-income subjects performed far more poorly on the tests, said Zhao.
On average, a person preoccupied with money problems showed a reduction in cognitive function equivalent to a 13-point drop in IQ or the loss of a night's sleep.
"It's a big jump," she said of the dip in IQ. "It pushes you from average (intelligence) to borderline (mental disability)."
In the second study, the researchers went into the field to test their theory in a real-life situation — with about 460 sugarcane farmers in 54 Indian villages who earn all their yearly income at the time of the annual harvest.
"That creates interesting dynamics because in the months before the harvest, they're really poor, they're running out," Zhao said. "Whereas, in the months right after the harvest, they're rich.
"So you can literally look within the same individual at how he or she performs when poor versus when rich."
The researchers found that farmers showed diminished cognitive performance before getting paid for their harvest, compared to after the sugarcane crop was gathered in, when they had greater wealth.
They said these changes in cognitive abilities could not be explained by differences in nutrition, physical exertion or stress.
"So the very context of not having enough resources impedes your cognitive function," Zhao said. That reduces a person's mental ability to address elements that could help them break out of poverty, for instance, a higher level of education, a better-paying job and enrolment in social programs to help attain those goals.
"You are simply unable to notice those things when you are preoccupied by poverty concerns."
The fallout from neglecting other areas of life can exacerbate already trying financial woes, said co-author Eldar Shafir, a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton.
Late fees tacked onto unpaid rent and other bills or a job lost because of poor time management can make an already-tight money situation worse, Shafir said in a statement. And as people become more impoverished, they tend to make decisions that perpetuate their financial hardship, such as excessive borrowing, he added.
The researchers suggest that services for the poor shouldn't "cognitively tax" them. Positive measures could include simpler aid forms, more guidance for receiving assistance, and more flexibly structured training and educational programs.
"When (people living in poverty) make mistakes, the outcomes of errors are more dear," Shafir said. "So, if you are poor, you're more error prone and errors cost you more dearly. It's hard to find a way out."
Dennis Raphael, a professor of health policy and management at Toronto's York University , said the findings are consistent with previous research on the effects of a lack of "attentional resources" among the poor.
"The stuff is concrete, it's biological and it has consequences," Raphael, who was not involved in the study, said Thursday. "The good news is it draws the attention of people and it points out that these things are real and that they're not a result of lifestyle choices.
"So it has the potential for placing these individuals and group difficulties into a broader perspective."
The downside of the paper is contained in the authors' recommendations that "services for the poor should accommodate the dominance that poverty has on a person's time and thinking ... so that a person who has stumbled can more easily try again," he said.
"It draws attention away from the broader public policy and societal issues that many argue are setting the stage for these kinds of problems," including low wages, poor job security and an inadequate social safety net.
Also on HuffPost:
Make Your Meals A Rainbow
That doesn't mean you should pour out a bag of Skittles at each meal. Try to eat foods of a variety of natural colors to gain antioxidants, said Dr. Amen.
Avoid These Fruits
Just because something is a fruit, doesn't mean you should chow down on it, according to Dr. Daniel Amen, author of "Use Your Brain To Change Your Age." For brain health, Dr. Amen recommends food with a low glycemic index -- which measures how quickly food increases blood sugar -- and a lot of fiber, which benefits your intestinal tract. Certain fruit like pineapple and watermelon have high glycemic indexes and should be avoided, advises Dr. Amen. Instead, incorporate fruits like blueberries, apples, oranges, cherries, kiwi, strawberries and raspberries. When it comes to fiber, consider adding coconut to your diet. <em>Correction: In a previous version of this slide, "blood pressure" was incorrectly inserted where "blood sugar" is.</em>
You Need Fat
Don't eliminate all of the fat in your diet. Instead, focus on incorporating good fats. In fact, if your cholesterol drops too low, you may be at greater risk for depression, according to Amen <a href="http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-breakthrough-depression-solution/201106/low-cholesterol-and-its-psychological-effects" target="_hplink"> and several studies on low cholesterol</a>. So what exactly are "good fats"? Dr. Amen advises people to eat foods rich in omega-3s to promote brain health, including almonds, walnuts, brazil nuts, fish, lamb, avocados and green leafy vegetables. Another added benefit of eating good fats? "Your vitamins are actually absorbed better when you eat them with a little bit of fat," said Dr. Amen.
Choose Your Meat Wisely
While you generally want to avoid bad fats, if you choose to eat steak, "you want to go with grass-fed, hormone-free, free-range meats" rather than grain-fed meats, said Dr. Amen. "When you feed the animals the high-glycemic foods, they actually produce less of the good fat and more of the bad fat. So they're not as good for you." In other words, what your food eats affects your health too, according to Dr. Amen. <em>Photo courtesy of <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/mdid/" target="_hplink">mdid</a></em>
Herbs And Spices Don't Just Add Flavor
Next time you're whipping up some grub, turn to your spice rack for an extra brain boost. Spices and herbs may do more for your health than you realize. According to Dr. Amen, cinnamon balances blood sugar; garlic, oregano and rosemary increase blood flow to the brain; curry acts as an anti-inflammatory; and saffron can have anti-depressant effects. <em>Photo courtesy of <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/spence_sir/" target="_hplink">S. Diddy</a></em>
Pour Out That Juice
Next time you're craving a cold glass of juice with your breakfast, think again. "Juice is sugar that is unwrapped from its fiber source, and whenever you unwrap sugar from its fiber source, it can turn toxic in your body," said Dr. Amen. <em>Photo courtesy of <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/mamchenkov/" target="_hplink">Leonid Mamchenkov</a></em>
What You Eat For Breakfast Matters
You may be dreaming about that delicious breakfast muffin all night, but you should probably steer clear of the breakfast pastries. "There's way too much bad fat and sugar," said Dr. Amen. Instead, he recommends a protein-heavy breakfast like a few boiled eggs, nuts and an apple. While Dr. Amen suggests eating lean protein at each meal, he believes it is "especially important in the morning because it helps you focus," he said. <em>Photo courtesy of <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/15216811@N06/" target="_hplink">Nicola since 1972</a></em>
Find Supportive Friends
The last thing you need when you're trying to eat healthy are friends who try to coerce you to be unhealthy. "You have to deal with the food pushers in your life because they'll steal your health," said Dr. Amen. "The health of the people you spend time with will often determine your longevity." Make sure your friends understand and support your decision to eat healthier, and try to find other people who who are on the same healthy path as you.
Related Video: Nutrition And Brain Health