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Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Must Start Early

A mother feeding her infant.By George L. Askew, MD, FAAP, Chief Medical Officer

We know that two-thirds of deaths worldwide are the result of high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.  We also know that lifestyle plays an important role in preventing and controlling disease.  In recognition of this and to advance the health of the nation, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) called for improvements in health status, risk reduction, public and professional awareness of prevention, and delivery of health services. 

One means of achieving these improvements is through Healthy People which provides science-based, 10-year national objectives for improving the health of all Americans. Healthy People strives to increase public awareness and understanding of the determinants of health, disease, and disability.  Specifically, Healthy People 2020 puts forth a plan that identifies four overarching goals:

  1. Attain high-quality, longer lives free of preventable disease 
  2. Achieve health equity and eliminate disparities
  3. Create social and physical environments that promote good health
  4. Promote quality of life, healthy development, and healthy behaviors across life the lifespan

However, by the time children become adults, the stage may already have been set for a lifetime of chronic physical and mental illness. 

We know that children who experienced adverse conditions early in life such as poverty, unstable home environments, neglect and abuse suffer from more illness as adults and throughout their lives. Fortunately, evidence suggests that healthier lifestyle behaviors may be influenced by high quality early childhood development programs from birth to five and that such program’s influence on lifestyle behaviors can positively affect a variety of health outcomes. 

For example, the Abecedarian preschool program in North Carolina, one of the nation’s oldest and most cited early childhood intervention programs, tested whether developmental delays among disadvantaged children could be prevented through quality early childhood programs. The results showed positive outcomes for adult health and that supporting and providing programs that intervene favorably on human development from birth to age five can be important for preventing chronic disease.

The Administration for Children and Families’ quality early childhood development programs, Head Start and Early Head Start, which provide comprehensive services to pregnant women, enrolled children and their families and include health, nutrition, social and other services determined to be necessary by family needs assessments, are integral to achieving positive health outcomes. This is particularly true for low-income families and may just be the key to a healthier nation. 

The Heckman Equation, Abecedarian & Health: Improve health outcomes with quality early childhood programs that include health and nutrition,

ACF website: Head Start Services


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