Early Childhood Investments Substantially Boost Adult Health

This 2014 Science article features an analysis of the health benefits derived from the North Carolina Abecedarian project in North Carolina, a birth-to-five early childhood education program that included early health, nutrition, and learning. Heckman and co-authors from the Frank Porter Graham Institute at the University of North Carolina find that comprehensive early childhood education boosts school and life achievement and significantly reduces the incidence of chronic disease. A summary of the research findings and their implications can be found in here.

High quality early childhood programs have been shown to have substantial benefits in reducing crime, raising earnings, and promoting education. Much less is known about their benefits for adult health. We report on the long-term health effects of one of the oldest and most heavily cited early childhood interventions with long-term follow-up evaluated by the method of randomization: the Carolina Abecedarian Project (ABC). Using recently collected biomedical data, we find that disadvantaged children randomly assigned to treatment have significantly lower prevalence of risk factors for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases in their mid-30s. The evidence is especially strong for males. The mean systolic blood pressure among the control males is 143 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg), whereas it is only 126 mm Hg among the treated. One in four males in the control group is affected by metabolic syndrome, whereas none in the treatment group are affected. To reach these conclusions, we address several statistical challenges. We use exact permutation tests to account for small sample sizes and conduct a parallel bootstrap confidence interval analysis to confirm the permutation analysis. We adjust inference to account for the multiple hypotheses tested and for nonrandom attrition. Our evidence shows the potential of early life interventions for preventing disease and promoting health.