April 15, 2014

Study links early childhood programs to long-term health benefits

A new study by Nobel Prize–winning University economics professor James Heckman claims that early childhood programs can help prevent the onset of chronic disease in adulthood. The study was based on data collected in a follow-up to the Abecedarian Project, an early childhood intervention experiment that comprised over 100 children from low-income families in North Carolina.

The Abecedarian Project began in 1972 and was run by a group of researchers who monitored the children from birth through age five. The treatment group children received high-quality childcare that consisted of playing educational games, as well as nutritional supplements and health screenings. The control group of children left parents to find whatever child care the parents thought was appropriate. Thirty-five years later, University of Chicago researchers found that the children who received these early childhood interventions grew into healthier adults when contrasted to control group children whose parents organized childcare on their own.

The children who received the Abecedarian treatment had a lower risk for coronary heart disease in adulthood. Women in the treatment group were less likely to develop pre-hypertension and suffer from obesity; men had lower blood pressure, higher levels of “good” cholesterol, and reduced risks for hypertension, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Treatment group adults also had healthier lifestyle behaviors: they exercised more, ate more fruit, and began to drink and smoke at older ages.

Heckman believes that the discipline that the project instilled in its subjects is what led to the greater health outcomes. “[Abecedarian] offers a different way to fight costly adult chronic diseases;  investing early in the development of children to build the knowledge and self-regulation necessary to prevent chronic disease and help them lead healthy, productive lives,” he said in a University press release.

When University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill experimenters began the Abecedarian Project, they originally hypothesized that the intervention would raise the children’s IQ by 30 to 50 points. The treatment group had only modest single-digit increases in IQ, but at age 30, researchers found that treatment group individuals were four times more likely to have graduated from a four-year college and 50 percent more likely to have been consistently employed for the last two years.

Rodrigo Pinto, a researcher who has worked with professor Heckman for about 10 years, said that the success of individuals from the treatment group is attributed to “non-cognitive skills” they developed, such as executive functioning, the ability to create and execute a plan, as well as skills like being open to new information and the ability to comply to norms and rules.

Heckman and Pinto study the economic effects of the development of human capital. “Early childhood [interventions are] one of the rare [types] of policies that promote equality, and are economically efficient. In typical welfare programs, the benefit people receive is strictly monetary, but early childhood programs invest in kids and their skill development,” Pinto said. “If you compare early childhood intervention with welfare, early childhood intervention is much more economically efficient.… For each dollar that we invest in these kids, we turn more than one dollar to society.… If you invest in those kids later on, you are less likely to get this return.”

Pinto is still unsure about the exact policy implications of their work. “[Our research] does not say that all early childhood intervention is good. It only said that some early childhood intervention operates through some specific times [for] children. [The] work of fine-tuning policy interventions that actually work well is one of our challenges,” he said.