The more early years education children receive, the less likely they are to develop heart disease in later life, landmark research reveals.
The benefits of early years education have already been shown to be myriad. According to studies in recent decades, they include improved secondary school attainment, higher earnings and lower rates of incarceration. The new research, however, is the first in-depth study of the impact on health.
Academics from two US universities followed 615 children from birth through to age 15. Some attended formal preschool from the age of 4, while others were looked after by parents or childminders.
By 15, children who had attended preschool had lower systolic blood pressure and arterial pressure than their peers who had been cared for by parents or childminders, the researchers found. These readings indicate a reduced risk of heart attacks and cardiovascular disease.
On this side of the Atlantic, early years provision has become a key issue in the general election campaign, with all main parties pledging to extend the offer of 15 hours of free childcare for three- and four-year-olds. The Conservative Party is offering 30 hours and Labour 25 hours to working parents of children aged 3-4. The Liberal Democrats have promised 20 hours of free childcare to all parents of children aged 2-4 and to working parents from when their child is nine months old.
Since factors influencing whether children attend preschool may also influence health, the academics from Northwestern University in Illinois and Fordham University in New York controlled for background, parental income, race and sex.
The health benefits were found to be particularly noticeable among children from low-income backgrounds. In this group, attending preschool was linked not only to lower blood pressure but also to a lower body mass index (BMI).
Children who attended preschool for more than 32 hours a week had lower blood pressure and arterial pressure than those who attended less regularly. However, they also weighed more, having a higher average BMI than their peers. The academics do not speculate as to why this might be.
Interestingly, while the amount of time spent in school made a difference to later health, the quality of the education received there did not. The academics found that class size, teaching quality and the teachers' own education had no impact on children's blood pressure or BMI.
`Origins of health'
The researchers therefore conclude that preschool education - of any quality - plays a vital role in "the early origins of health". Such early years experiences, they add, "not only promote academic and social outcomes but health outcomes as well".
Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of UK campaign group Early Education, said the research chimed with other studies on the social and emotional benefits in later life. "Blood pressure in isolation is hard to interpret, but it is a helpful reminder that early education is about the child as a whole person, not just about a narrow focus on academic studies," she added.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, agreed that the benefits of early years learning were "holistic and wide-ranging", adding: "It is vital that we provide broad-based, engaging and fun early years experiences that provide ample opportunities for social interaction and physical development, rather than simply focusing on narrow `academic' skills such as literacy and numeracy."
`Sense of resilience'
Bernadette Duffy, head of the Thomas Coram centre in London, finds the research "fascinating".
"Thinking about our four-year-olds, they are well-established, they feel confident, they feel that the nursery is their place," she says. "Having that sense of well-being, security and resilience when you are 4 perhaps helps with stress and blood pressure later on.
"In England, all the nurseries have a healthy eating policy and because of the Early Years Foundation Stage [the curriculum for preschool children] they all have a strong emphasis on physical development and outdoor play. I'm sure that helps improve health, too."