New research analyses the long-term impacts on healthy behaviours and adult health of two of the oldest and most influential early childhood interventions: the High Scope Perry Preschool Program and the Carolina Abecedarian Project.

The study by Gabriella Conti, Jim Heckman and Rodrigo Pinto, which is published in the Economic Journal, shows the potential of early life interventions for preventing disease and promoting health.

Both interventions used the method of ''randomised controlled trials'' to assign enriched environments to disadvantaged children, and the participants were then followed into adulthood. Among the findings of the new analysis of data from the programmes:

  • Both interventions show statistically significant and numerically sizeable effects on the health and healthy behaviours of participants.
  • For both interventions, treatment effects are much stronger and more precisely determined for males.
  • There is an important role played by enhancements in the childhood traits enhanced by these programmes beyond their effects on promoting educational attainment and income and the resulting beneficial effects on health.
  • The Perry participants have significantly fewer behavioural risk factors (in particular smoking) by the time they reach age 40.The Abecedarian participants are in better physical health in their mid-30s. This evidence is consistent with recent analysis of dynamic skill formation. Skills developed early in life enhance people''s skills to perform a variety of lifetime tasks effectively.

The researchers note that discussions of ways to control the soaring costs of health largely focus on the provision of healthcare to sick adults. But a substantial body of research shows that adult illnesses are more prevalent and problematic among those who have experienced adverse early life conditions. There is increasing understanding of the role played by biological embedding of social and economic adversity.

This evidence suggests that a strategy of prevention rather than later life treatment may be more effective. Such an approach recognises the life-cycle nature of health formation, and views policies that shape early life environments as effective tools for promoting health.

Following this path, a recent body of research points to the role that might be played by early childhood interventions that target disadvantaged children in promoting adult health. But until now, little hard evidence has been available.

Co-author Jim Heckman comments:

''The extensive economic, psychological, behavioural and health benefits of the Abecedarian and Perry programmes warrant their full consideration in discussions of ways to control the soaring costs of the healthcare and education systems in many developed countries, as well as vehicles for reducing crime.''

''Research evidence indicates that early childhood programmes are most effective for children from the most disadvantaged environments.''

''The Effects of Two Influential Early Childhood Interventions on Health and Healthy Behaviours'' by Gabriella Conti, James J. Heckman and Rodrigo Pinto is published in the October 2016 issue of the Economic Journal. Gabriella Conti is at University College London. Nobel laureate Jim Heckman is at the University of Chicago. Rodrigo Pinto is at the University of California, Los Angeles.