A new study explores the link between early education programs and adult health, and how early educational interventions affect health outcomes.

Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health researchers found that early education reduces health behavioral risk factors by enhancing educational attainment, health insurance coverage, income, and family environments.

However, since the follow-up survey was conducted at age 40, the cohort may still be too young for these reductions in behavioral risk factors to translate into improvements in overall physical health outcomes.

The study, available online in the American Journal of Public Health, will be published in the August 2009 issue.

The researchers followed children between the ages of 3 and 4 years and through the age of 40 years. Considered a critical window for children’s intellectual and socioemotional development, these prekindergarten years are thought to be especially important for children whose parents have a limited amount of education.

“Earlier research indicates that prekindergarten programs targeting children from low-income households produce lifelong improvements in schooling, income, family stability, and job quality,” says Peter Muennig, MD, MPH, assistant professor of Health Policy and Management at the Mailman School of Public Health and principal investigator.

“These intertwined improvements in social circumstances may, in turn, improve health through reductions in behavioral risk factors, enhanced job safety, better health insurance coverage, safer neighborhoods of residence, better access to healthy foods, and lower levels of psychological stress.”

Dr. Muennig also says the findings are consistent with those of nonrandomized studies in which high levels of educational attainment have been shown to directly improve health status.

“Some have questioned whether education leads to reductions in behavioral risk factors, arguing that most people are aware that risky behaviors are bad for their health, and that higher educational attainment as well as better health can be attributed to other factors. Our findings challenge such theories.”

Initiated in 1962, data from “Effects of a Prekindergarten Educational Intervention on Adult Health: 37-Year Follow-Up Results of a Randomized Controlled Trial,” is based on a study of 123 preschool-aged (3 or 4 years) children in the High/Scope Perry Preschool Program, who were recruited from low-income, predominantly African American neighborhoods in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Source: Columbia University