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New report links quality preschool with prevention of chronic disease in adulthood

Preschoolers eat lunch of broccoli, turkey pasta, apples and saltine crackers.
Preschoolers eat lunch of broccoli, turkey pasta, apples and saltine crackers.
Deepa Fernandes / KPCC

Participation in quality preschool can delay or even prevent the onset of chronic diseases in adulthood, according to a new report by Nobel Laureate in economics, James Heckman, and his colleagues from the University of Chicago and researchers from the University College of London.

Heckman, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, won the Noble Prize in economics in 2000 for his work on microeconomics. In recent years, he investigated the economics of investing in early education. Heckman found that for every $1 invested in early education, the economic return would be $7, a statistic often quoted by advocates in the push for universal preschool.

Heckman’s team has again analyzed longitudinal data, this time to look for health outcomes into adulthood, based on exposure to early childhood education. The latest report, published in the journal Science, indicates that of the children in the study, those who had early education interventions had much lower levels of obesity and hypertension in their '30s, and exhibited much less of the symptoms that lead to  coronary heart disease, as compared to the control group.

Heckman’s team used a data set taken from the Carolina Abecedarian Project, which spanned decades, following babies born in the 1970's into their mid-30s.  Known as the ABC study, researchers conducted a controlled scientific study to gauge the impact of early childhood education on the lives of children from low-income families. During the ABC study, 111 children in North Carolina were tracked by researchers from birth. Of these infants, 57 were enrolled in high-quality educational programs from infancy through age 5. They were exposed to activities and games focused on social, emotional, and cognitive areas of development.  The remaining children acted as the control group. The 54 infants in the control group were given nutritional supplements, health care and the requisite social services - factors that might otherwise affect the outcome - but they did not have quality early education interventions. Almost all the infants in the project were African American.  The participants were studied throughout childhood, as teens and into adulthood. Most are now nearing 40.

In analyzing the data for health outcomes, Heckman and his colleagues found that men and women also fared differently. Men who had early education interventions had lower blood pressure and higher “good” HDL cholesterol than men in the control group. Women who received preschool had lower levels of obesity and were less likely to develop pre-hypertension than women who had no early education.

Another interesting finding linked early education programs with a health component to a healthier lifestyle into adulthood. The study found that women who received nutritional education as part of preschool ate more fruit, engaged in more physical activity and were less likely to start drinking before age 17.