Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

Can high-quality preschool programs make children healthier when they grow up? A new study suggests that they can.

“A new analysis of the Abecedarian preschool program, one of the oldest and most cited U.S. early childhood intervention programs, shows positive effects on adult health. Using recently collected data in a biomedical sweep, this research finds that children who were in the treatment group have significantly better health in their mid-30s,” according to a research summary on the Heckman Equation website.

The research was a joint project of Nobel Prize-winning, Economics Professor James J. Heckman and his colleagues at the University of Chicago along with researchers at the University College London and at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina (FPG). Their findings were published last month in Science.

The new study looked at children who attended North Carolina’s Abecedarian preschool program in the 1970s, and found lower rates of pre-hypertension for adults in their mid-30s, as well as lower risk of total coronary heart disease. In men, there were lower combinations of obesity and hypertension.

As the New York Times explains, researchers had already looked at cognitive and academic outcomes such as “whether the treated children would, for example, be less likely to fail in school. The answer was yes. Over all, the participants’ abilities as infants were about the same, but by age 3 they had diverged. By age 30, those in the group given special care were four times as likely to have graduated from college.”

“Forty years ago, it was all about cognition,” Heckman told the Times. “But it turned out that when you expand these capabilities — not only cognitive but social and emotional — one of the effects is better health. Nobody thought about that at the time.”

“Not only did FPG and Heckman’s team determine that people who had received high-quality early care and education in the 1970s through the project are healthier now—significant measures also indicate better health lies ahead for them,” FPG explains in a news release.

The study’s focus on health “breaks new ground in demonstrating the emergence of the relationship between education and health,” Craig Ramey said in the FPG news release. He’s the project’s original principal investigator and now serves as a professor of pediatrics and a distinguished research scholar at Virginia Tech.

“To our knowledge, this is the first time that actual biomarkers, as opposed to self-reports of illnesses, have been compared for adult individuals who took part in a randomized study of early childhood education,” said Frances Campbell, FPG senior scientist and principal investigator of the Abecedarian Project’s follow-up studies. “We analyzed actual blood samples, and a physician conducted examinations on all the participants, without knowing which people were in the control group.”

As we wrote here, other studies have also found links between Abecedarian and strong health outcomes.

The New York Times says this new study “is part of a growing body of scientific evidence that hardship in early childhood has lifelong health implications. But it goes further than outlining the problem, offering evidence that a particular policy might prevent it.” That policy is providing children with high-quality early childhood programs.

“This tells us that adversity matters and it does affect adult health,” Heckman told the Times. “But it also shows us that we can do something about it, that poverty is not just a hopeless condition.”

The study’s findings “intensify the already high value of quality early childhood development for disadvantaged children—and should be put to use to shape more effective state and national policies,” the Heckman Equation research summary concludes, offering this guidance for policymakers:

 • “Recognize that quality, birth-to-five early childhood development programs can and should be used to prevent adult chronic disease.”

 • “Make quality early childhood development an integral part of ongoing healthcare reform, particularly among families receiving Medicaid and CHIP.”

 • “Understand that quality early childhood programs start with effective perinatal care for mothers and begin at birth for children;” and

 • “Integrate early health and nutrition into early childhood development programs. Early health is critical for later adult health outcomes.”

 As Campbell said in the FPG news release, “Good health is the bedrock upon which other lifetime accomplishments rest, and without it, other gains are compromised.” She adds: “Investing in early childhood programs has been shown to pay off in ways we did not anticipate forty years ago when the Abecedarian study was founded.”

Policymakers should ensure that all of the nation’s children have access to the high-quality early education programs that can provide the emotional, cognitive, academic, and health outcomes that our children need to achieve lifelong success.