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Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: Early Childhood Experiences Shape Health and Well-Being Throughout Life

Research shows that children’s nutrition varies with parents’ income and education and can have lasting effects on health throughout life. One example, inadequate nutrition, is linked with obesity during childhood, which in turn is a strong predictor of adult obesity and its accompanying risks of chronic disease, disability and shortened life.

 

Introduction

It is important to draw attention to the social and economic backgrounds of people's lives in order to understand how life affects them, both positively and negatively, and to work on prevention rather than cure.

Fathers play an important role in the lives of their children. Fathers are making positive contributions to their children’s health, for example, by generating family income, maintaining a home, providing transportation, social networking, and role modeling in the community. Also, having more flexibility in the parenting arrangements can mean fathers play a greater role in caring for their children.

Overview

It may not be surprising to hear that the earliest years of our lives are important in many ways. It may, however, come as a surprise to most people to learn that one of those ways is how those early years set us on paths leading toward—or away from—good health.

Early Childhood Experiences Shape Health and Well-Being Throughout Life

During the last 15 to 20 years, accumulated knowledge has revealed that family income and education, neighborhood resources, and other social and economic factors affect health at every stage of life, but the effects on young children are particularly dramatic.

 
Parents’ education and income levels can create—or limit—opportunities to provide their children with nurturing and stimulating environments and to model healthy behaviors.
 

While all parents want the best for their children, not all parents have the same resources to help their children grow up healthy. Parents’ education and income levels can create—or limit—opportunities to provide their children with nurturing and stimulating environments and to model healthy behaviors.

These opportunities and obstacles, along with their health impacts, accumulate over time and can be transmitted across generations as children grow up and become parents themselves. The earliest years of our lives set us on paths leading toward—or away from—good health.

Lots of evidence now ties experiences in early childhood directly or indirectly with health and well-being throughout life. Adverse experiences in early childhood can set off a vicious cycle leading from social disadvantage in childhood to health disadvantage in adulthood, and then to more social disadvantage for the next generation, starting the cycle again.

Despite this, evidence also shows that it is possible to turn potentially vicious cycles into paths toward health by intervening early. Although effects of early childhood interventions appear largest for the most socially disadvantaged children, children in families of all socioeconomic levels benefit from high-quality early childhood programs.

Intervention in early childhood can interrupt a cycle that would otherwise lead from social disadvantage to health disadvantage and further social disadvantage. Research over the last 40 years supports the conclusion that children who participate in high-quality early childhood programs experience many immediate and long-term health related benefits, such as:

  • cognitive gains
  • better academic achievement
  • lower rates of delinquency and arrests in later adolescence.

High-quality early childhood programs, education and family support programs can act as buffers by providing stability and stimulation to the children and help build up parents' ability to meet the developmental and health needs of their children at home.

Resources Available

 

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