How a child’s breakfast can improve health in old age

TheGlobeandMail.com – news/commentary/editorials
Published Wednesday, Jun. 08, 2011.

Investing in the health of children benefits society. A new study of 17,000 Canadians over 16 years shows that children from families with lower educational and income levels are less healthy over time than their more affluent counterparts. By the age of 20, this trajectory is largely set. It is difficult to overcome the health effects of deficits experienced earlier in life. These deficits can include everything from poor-quality housing and a poor diet, to stressful life events and social isolation.

Programs aimed at alleviating poverty among schoolchildren pay dividends to society; these should be continued and, where fiscally practicable, extended. Providing free hot lunches and snacks to schools in low-income neighbourhoods, vision and hearing screening, and funding for after-school arts and sports programs, all help students’ cognitive development and improve overall health.

“By international standards, Canadian adults and children are very healthy. But by the age of 20, there are discernible differences across social groups in health-related quality of life,” said Nancy Ross, a McGill professor and co-author of the study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology Community Health.

And yet often early-intervention programs are among the first to be cut in times of budget deficits. This is a false economy. It is hard to reverse the negative health impacts of poverty once a child is grown. And universal health insurance and generous old age pensions do not prevent the accelerated decline in the health of poorer and less educated Canadians.

There is room for innovative programs, and for more public-private partnerships. Food banks and community organizations could launch programs to feed children from poor neighbourhoods during the summer. Schools in wealthier neighbourhoods could fundraise for schools in areas where parents do not have time or resources to do so as effectively.

Helping children overcome disadvantages of their birthright actually benefits all in the long run, through a decreased demand on the health-care system, and improved productivity and prosperity.

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