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Grown-up problems with preschool roots

"The most powerful measure of the development of an economy is the health of its population," J. Fraser Mustard, founding president of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, said at a recent IDB seminar on the socioeconomic consequences of early childhood nutrition and stimulation.

Mustard made a compelling case for Latin American and Caribbean societies to invest heavily in mothers and infants, and in education and adequate nutrition for preschool children. His arguments are based on research on death and disease rates in countries with national health insurance systems, recent findings about the development of brain functions and studies on underprivileged children.

A 1970s study in Britain, for example, found that the gap in quality of health across social classes had actually widened since the National Health Service was created in 1948. People at the top of society still had the lowest mortality rates, which increased gradually at each successive level down the social scale. That same pattern tends to be found in countries that lack Britain´s nationalized health services, such as the United States, suggesting that access to medical services does not determine health levels as much as underlying factors such as unemployment, income and education.

Another study cited by Mustard showed a similar pattern among British civil servants, a group that is not subject to industrial hazards, unemployment, poverty or excessive affluence. In this case, people in the bottom tier of the bureaucracy were at a higher risk of dying from coronary heart disease, strokes, smoking-related cancer, accidents and suicides than those higher up in the hierarchy.

One possible explanation was that civil servants in the lower grades had not been as well nourished during their childhood as those in the higher grades. Mean heights seemed to correlate with individuals' position in the hierarchy, their sickness-absence rates and their risk of dying of disorders that included suicide and accidents.

Mustard cited evidence from psychological and neuroscientific studies that points to how nurturing or stimulation influences the development of brain functions during the first few months of life and early childhood.

Studies of a program for working class preschoolers in Michigan and a program to boost nutrition and nurturing among high-risk, poor children in Jamaica revealed stark differences between kids who received better care and those in control groups. When followed up at age 27, the U.S. preschoolers (who received better care), had higher employment levels, half the rate of criminal convictions and far lower drug use levels than their Jamaican peers at the same age.

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