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NIH Research Matters

April 7, 2014

Adult Health Improved by Early Childhood Programs

An early childhood program—already shown to bring higher academic achievement and career benefits—can also help prevent disease later in life, according to new findings.

Caregivers clapping with baby.

Photo courtesy of the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Past studies have found that high-quality early education programs bring several benefits to children from low-income families. The children later attain a higher level of education, income, and socioeconomic status. They are also less likely to be involved in criminal behavior. The effects of such early life experiences on health have been less clear.

The Carolina Abecedarian Project is one of the oldest and most cited early childhood programs in the country. It was launched in the 1970s to study the effects of early childhood education on poor children. Researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill enrolled 111 disadvantaged children living nearby who were born between 1972 and 1977. The children were randomly assigned to an intervention or control group. The early childhood intervention (birth through age 5) involved a full 8-hour day with caregiving, supervised play, and a curriculum focused on language development, emotional regulation, and cognitive skills. The program had a health and nutrition component as well. Children were given 2 meals and a snack at the childcare center. They were also offered primary pediatric care with periodic checkups.

After this first stage, the children were randomly assigned to treatment or control groups for a subsequent school-age intervention (from age 6 through 8). This second intervention focused on early math and reading skills.

Follow-up studies conducted at ages 12, 15, 21, and 30 found several long-lasting benefits associated with the early childhood program. A later follow-up study aimed to assess any long-term health effects. A local physician carried out a complete physical exam on the participants when they were in their mid-30s. A series of laboratory tests analyzed blood collected during the medical visit.

In the latest report, the UNC researchers collaborated with scientists from the University College London and the University of Chicago, where Nobel laureate James J. Heckman headed a stringent statistical analysis to account for the small sample sizes. The study was funded in part by NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD). Results were published in Science on March 28, 2014.

By their mid-30s, those who’d participated in the early childhood program—especially males—had significantly fewer risk factors for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases compared to the control group. The men who’d been in the program had lower systolic blood pressure than those in the control group (126 mm Hg vs. 143 mm Hg). None of the men from the treatment group were affected by metabolic syndrome, whereas 1 in 4 males from the control group were affected. The researchers found no evidence of any treatment effect on adult health from the second, school-age intervention.

“Good health is the bedrock upon which other lifetime accomplishments rest, and without it, other gains are compromised,” says lead researcher Dr. Frances Campbell of UNC. “Investing in early childhood programs has been shown to pay off in ways we did not anticipate 40 years ago when the Abecedarian study was founded.”

—by Harrison Wein, Ph.D.

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Reference: Early childhood investments substantially boost adult health. Campbell F, Conti G, Heckman JJ, Moon SH, Pinto R, Pungello E, Pan Y. Science. 2014 Mar 28;343(6178):1478-85. doi: 10.1126/science.1248429. PMID: 24675955.

Funding: NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD); American Bar Foundation; Pritzker Children's Initiative; Buffett Early Childhood Fund; European Research Council; and the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

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Editor: Harrison Wein, Ph.D.
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NIH Research Matters is a weekly update of NIH research highlights from the Office of Communications and Public Liaison, Office of the Director, National Institutes of Health.

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This page last reviewed on April 7, 2014

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