North Carolina realized years ago that investing in early childhood programs not only produced short-term benefits by getting kids ready for kindergarten, but also generated long-term benefits such as increased graduation rates, greater lifetime earnings, and lower incarceration rates.

Researchers have now found substantial evidence that early childhood investments can positively affect adult health as well. A March 2014 study found that low-income North Carolina children who took part in an early childhood intervention were at lower risk for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases in their mid-30s.

A team of researchers led by Dr. Frances Campbell drew their data from the Carolinian Abecedarian Project, one of the earliest early childhood intervention experiments. In the 1970s, researchers recruited low-income children from Chapel Hill for an early childhood intervention program. From ages 0-5, participants received full-day daycare, complete medical care with physicals, and two nutritional meals a day. The authors followed up with participants through their adolescence and adulthood to amass a wealth of longitudinal data. For this study, Campbell and her team focused on biomedical data they collected when the participants were in their mid-30s.

The group who received the early childhood education, healthcare and nutrition had “significantly lower prevalence of risk factors for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases in their mid-30s”[i] than the control group. The results were especially striking for men, who had healthier body mass in childhood years, higher concentrations of good cholesterol, and lower blood pressure. Women in the treatment group were less likely to be hypertensive.

These findings have intriguing policy implications. North Carolina could address long-term healthcare costs by investing more in early childhood education.

The Carolinian Abecedarian Project intervention only lasted for five years and cost $67,000, and yet “produced sustained and substantive health benefits.”[ii] These benefits could help alleviate strain on the state’s healthcare budget, and produce healthier citizens overall.

The authors caution that the Carolina Abecedarian Project had a small sample size. However, the evidence “shows the potential of early life interventions for preventing disease and promoting health.” [iii]

The multiple impacts of early childhood programs merit further study and a watchful eye, especially from state policymakers who are concerned about the rising costs of health care.

 

[i] Frances Campbell, Gabriella Conti, James J. Heckman, Seong Hyeok Moon, Rodrigo Pinto, Elizabeth Pungello, and Yi Pan. (2014). Early Childhood Investments Substantially Boost Adult Health. Science. Retrieved from http://home.uchicago.edu/~rodrig/ScienceABC.pdf
[ii] See [i].
[iii] See [i].