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High-Quality Childhood Programs can Prevent Development of Chronic Diseases

Update Date: Mar 27, 2014 02:03 PM EDT

Childhood programs are created to educate children and adolescents about healthy lifestyles. Even though these programs aim to improve children's diets and activity levels, not everyone has access to them. According to a new study, researchers found that high-quality programs are effective in preventing the development of chronic diseases in later life.

The researchers from the University College London (UCL), the University of Chicago and the University of North Carolina examined the effects of attending a high-quality early childhood development program for disadvantaged children. The team analyzed over 30-years of information taken from the Abecedarian program in North Carolina. The program educated children about leading a healthy lifestyle while providing access to health screenings and nutrition.

Disadvantaged children who were a part of the program had access to two meals and an afternoon snack during their stay at the learning center. The center provided the children with a combination of cognitive and socio-emotional stimulation. It also provided periodic medical check-ups. The team compared the health of children in the program to a control group of children who did not have the program.

In terms of short-term benefits, the researchers found that children in the program had lower body mass indexes (BMI), which is a measurement of obesity, in comparison to the children in the control group during the preschool years. During adult life, the researchers found that children in the program had a lower risk of developing chronic diseases.

"Prior to this research, we had indications that quality early childhood interventions that enrich the environments of disadvantaged children helped produce better health later in life," said Dr Gabriella Conti, study author from the UCL Institute of Epidemiology & Health Care. "Abecedarian shows that investing in early childhood programs that offer a nurturing and stimulating environment, together with health care and nutritional components, can promote health and prevent disease. It also shows that an integrated developmental approach to health offers a different way to fight costly adult chronic diseases."

When the researchers examined long-term benefits for the body, they found that by mid-30s, the boys who were in the program had lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure. These reduced levels meant that they had a lower risk of developing hypertension. This group of men also did not develop metabolic syndrome, which includes hypertension, obesity and dyslipidemia, which is when the blood has an abnormal amount of lipids or cholesterol. The metabolic syndrome is a risk factor for heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Men in the control group had a 25 percent rate of metabolic syndrome. For women, the researchers found that those in the program also had a lower risk of developing hypertension and were less likely to have abdominal obesity.

"Creating fully functioning and flourishing adults depends crucially on a variety of early life experiences: health, nutrition, good parenting and early stimulation and learning. Together, they boost the capability for knowledge and self-regulation, giving children the capacity to shape their lives in many positive ways - educational achievement, higher earnings, better health and stronger families," said study author Professor James Heckman, Nobel laureate economist from the University of Chicago. "We need to invest early if we want to raise a generation of healthy, socially and emotionally talented people equipped to lead successful lives. It's the most effective and cost-efficient investment we can make."

The findings suggest that more programs like the Abecedarian one could greatly affect people's overall health.

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