Hunger and poverty in the United States are severe enough to significantly impair the academic and psychosocial development of school-age children and adolescents, according to two studies at Cornell University.
"The level of food deprivation in this wealthy nation puts millions of children at risk for multiple developmental problems," says Katherine Alaimo, who obtained her Ph.D. at Cornell in 2000 and now is a community health scholar at the University of Michigan. Alaimo conducted the studies for her doctoral dissertation, using data from the National Center for Health Statistics, with Cornell nutritional sciences Professor Christine Olson and Associate Professor Edward Frongillo. One study looks at how hunger is linked to depression and suicide attempts among adolescents. The other links hunger with the cognitive, academic and psychosocial development of school-age children.
The Cornell researchers found that young people, ages 15 to 16, in homes where there is not always enough to eat, are five times more likely to attempt suicide, compared with well-fed adolescents. They also are four times more likely to suffer from chronic, low-grade depression (dysthymia), which is a high-risk factor for major depression, are almost twice as likely to have been suspended from school, and have more problems getting along with their peers.
Young people, ages 6 to 11, who live in food in families without enough food are twice as likely to have seen a psychologist, 1.4 times more likely to have repeated a grade and to have significantly lower math scores.
All of these outcomes of hunger emerged after the Cornell researchers controlled for almost two dozen factors that could influence developmental outcomes, including poverty levels, ethnicity, parental education and employment status, and fetal exposure to smoking.
The Cornell researchers report that one in five American children live in poverty, the highest level of childhood poverty among developed nations, and that almost 4 million children live in homes where at times, due to lack of economic resources, there is not enough food. Previous studies had shown that depression is a common result of insufficient food, particularly among people who are on near-starvation diets. In the Cornell study, 60 percent of the adolescents who lived in homes with inadequate food intake had at least one suicidal symptom (thoughts of death or suicide or desire to die) and almost 20 percent attempted suicide.
"Food is fundamental and food insufficiency, like other material deprivations such as homelessness, is stressful for both parents and children and can cause depression, anxiety and other emotional problems," says Alaimo.
"Unlike many other factors that contribute to psychological, developmental or social problems, this one is fairly straightforward to address. We need public policies that ensure that families have access to enough nutritionally adequate and safe food for an active healthy life," adds Olson.
The study on the links of food insufficiency with depression and suicide attempts is in the Journal of Nutrition (2002 132: 719-725; full text available at http://www.nutrition.org/cgi/content/full/132/4/719 ). It analyzed data on 754 15- and 16-year-olds from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
The paper on the links between food insufficiency and cognitive, academic and psychosocial development was published in Pediatrics (July 2001 108:1, pp. 44-53; full text available at http://www.pediatrics.org/cgi/content/full/108/1/44 ). It analyzed data on 3,286 6- to 11-year-olds and 2,063 12- to 16-year-olds from the same national survey.
The studies were supported, in part, by the National Institutes of Health.