Could investing in the early years be a key to the public’s health?

The Public Health community has long looked upstream for what produces healthy individuals, families and whole communities. At its core, we understand that conditions such as housing, employment, the environment and education are the foundation of healthy communities.

But what if, just as we rattle off “education” as a key building block for lifelong health, public health added investing in parental supports and a child’s early years to the top tier of prevention priorities?

At the King County Early Learning Symposium on January 7th, scientists, local and national leaders, and community-based organizations came together to hear the latest brain science regarding the power of the first five years of life. Investing early, before brain architecture is set, say the scientists, may be the best and most cost effective way to set our children on the right path for a healthy future. Research is telling us that:

Early learning

  • 85% of brain growth is complete by age 3
  • Face-to-face interactions are critical for not only social development, but for cognitive brain development
  • Women are most open to changing behavior during pregnancy and for the several months right after giving birth

Adverse childhood experiences and health outcomes

What happens during the first few years of life is linked not only to cognitive and learning outcomes for kids, but their future health. Research has found links from early childhood stress and trauma (such as neglect or family dysfunction) to health outcomes. These early childhood events are known as adverse childhood experiences.

For example, King County data from the 2009-2011 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System found that adults reporting four or more adverse childhood experiences were associated with obesity, smoking, excessive drinking and overall fair or poor health.

Investments must continue at critical developmental points

And, we can’t stop at age 5. There are critical points in a young person’s life where we run the risk of reversing any gains we make early on. The science has evolved so that we can see early warning signs. What if we had early and universal screening for all youth to identify risk factors and provide early treatment before a crisis develops?

But aren’t we already focused on early intervention?

It’s not to say that public health doesn’t already have programs that focus on early intervention. We do. We have Maternity Support Services, nurse home visits for low-income first time moms, health programs for childcare providers, school-based clinics, to name just a few. These programs are clearly inline with brain science, but it’s how we talk about them that matters.

Brain science changing the landscape

What brain science is telling us is that ensuring positive early experiences may truly be the key to preventing many of the public health problems we deal with today — problems rooted in lack of opportunity, high incarceration rates, and poverty.  These conditions ultimately drive many of the health challenges in our community.

So where to go from here.

One step is to change the lens through which we are seeing our public health efforts that are currently focused on parents and early childhood development — emphasizing this as a key social determinant of health.

Second is to continue to draw the link between our social policies and healthy communities.  Social policies that support families and young children are powerful public health prevention tools.

Finally, take a look at Best Starts for Kids, an initiative launched by Executive Constantine to rebalance our efforts away from costly criminal justice to focus upstream on prevention. Areas of focus include pregnancy and early childhood, school-age youth and healthy and safe communities.