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Friday, March 28, 2014

High-Quality Preschool Could Prevent Chronic Diseases In Adulthood, Study Finds

US President Barack Obama visits with preschoolers at Powell Elementary School in Washington, DC, March 4, 2014. The President has called for universal prekindergarten. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama visits with preschoolers at Powell Elementary School in Washington, DC, on March 4, 2014. The President has called for universal prekindergarten. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

A new study in the journal Science finds that high-quality preschool may prevent chronic diseases in adulthood.

Researchers looked at children who were in a preschool program in North Carolina during the 1970s and 80s.

The researchers found that when those kids were adults in their 30s, they had significantly better health outcomes, including lower levels of obesity and heart disease.

Professor James Heckman, a University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate, joins Here & Now’s Sacha Pfeiffer to discuss the findings of this study and implications for early childhood programs.

The program Heckman and his colleagues studied provided disadvantaged children with early health screenings and interactions with quality caregivers — including meals prepared in consultation with a certified nutritionist.

Heckman says this study and others he has done about the impact of preschool on future outcomes creates a different measure of success.

“The way that preschool is actually being evaluated in Washington today … all the witnesses on all sides are focusing on test scores,” Heckman said. “What I’m suggesting is that the measures used now in the public debate on early childhood are actually missing a whole spectrum of other outcomes that these programs produce.”

Heckman has done research showing that every one dollar invested in preschool now can lead to seven dollars in returns to society.

However, Heckman says the real value of preschool is to remedy disadvantages poor children face.

“I don’t think its a necessary condition to attend preschool to have a successful life, and especially for people from middle class families, and upper middle class families,” Heckman said. “These are supplements to family life, and so the real question is how the American family is functioning for different parts of the social and economic spectrum. And I think it’s functioning much less well for disadvantaged children.”

Guest

  • James Heckman, lead researcher and Nobel laureate and professor of economics at the University of Chicago.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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