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Investing in pre-school malnutrition has a significant impact on economic productivity in developing nations, according to research.

The study, published in The Lancet last week (1 February), follows-up on a nutrition intervention study conducted in rural Guatemala between 1969 and 1977.

Children were randomly provided with either a high-energy, high-protein supplement — atole — or a placebo drink, at specific ages between 0 and 7.

The researchers assessed the economic status of sixty per cent of the individuals from the original study between 2002 and 2004, when their ages ranged from 25–42 years.

They recorded data such as types of job, hours worked and wages earned, and found that boys who were given atole between the ages of 0 and 3 earned up to 46 per cent higher wages as adults than those who received the placebo drink.

Children who were given atole after age three did not receive any economic benefits in adulthood.

According to John Hoddinott, lead author and senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, this is consistent with the hypothesis that the window of opportunity for intervening in child nutrition lies "in the very early ages; somewhere between 0 and 3 years of age."

"Our study is the first study which finds direct effects of nutrition intervention in early childhood in incomes and productivity in adulthood," said Hoddinott at a press teleconference.

"As such, it provides compelling evidence that investments in early childhood nutrition can be a long-term driver of increased productivity and therefore economic growth."

The nutrition intervention did not have an effect on women's income, which the authors suggest may be due to gender differences in work activities.

But atole consumption between the ages of 0 and 2 increased schooling in women by more than one grade, and reading comprehension increased significantly in both genders.

"Many developing country and middle-income country governments face significant trade-offs in how they allocate their budget to various types of investments. Governments which have a strong interest in improving welfare, reducing poverty and increasing economic growth, should increase the investments they make in pre-school nutrition," said Hoddinott.

The next step involves exploring the effects of nutrition intervention on physical stature and cognitive ability, to uncover the major driving force in increased economic productivity. Hoddinott and colleagues tentatively predict that cognitive ability plays the larger role.

Link to full paper in The Lancet*

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The Lancet 371, 411 (2008)