Health

Building brains

Can young children be programmed for health?

Mark Nichols November 1 1999
Health

Building brains

Can young children be programmed for health?

Mark Nichols November 1 1999

Building brains

Can young children be programmed for health?

Health

The air in the ballroom of an elegant Toronto hotel was thick with superlatives—“a tremendous resource,” “a man of evangelical passion, compassion and generosity,” “an intellectual giant.” The imposing, white-haired figure at the centre of it all was Dr. Fraser Mustard, the occasion his retirement last week as chairman of the Toronto-based Institute for Work & Health. Mustard’s leadership of the organization, which researches and promotes workplace safety, is just one facet in a life that has contained a succession of careers—physician, scientist, thinker, educator. And when Mustard rose to thank his hosts, he related an incident that reflected one of his current preoccupations—children. It happened in September during a visit to a mountain village in northern Pakistan. “We had to introduce ourselves to the village leaders,” recalled Mustard, 72. “And one of the things they wanted to know was how many children we each had. I was pleased to say that I have six children, and nine grandchildren—which gave me considerable status in the eyes of the villagers.”

A man of huge energy, Mustard of late has been reducing his habitually heavy workload—in May, he wound up a stint as chairman of Ballard Power Systems, the pioneering Burnaby, B.C.-based company that builds hydrogen power cells. He still spends approximately a month each year taking part in meetings of the board of the Aga Khan University in Pakistan. And he is in demand across Canada and internationally to speak on a subject that has become something of a Mustard crusade—early childhood development. Society, he contends, must devote more resources to nurturing children in the first six years of life. “The early years,” he says, “determine our later coping skills—if you don’t get that in childhood, it’s very hard to make up for it later.”

Of his own childhood in Toronto, Mustard recalls that although the family had financial problems in the Depression years, “I was well supported by adults and an extended family of relatives in rural Ontario.” After earning a University of Toronto medical degree, Mustard scored a research breakthrough in the 1960s by shedding new light on

the process that leads to hardening of the arteries.

As dean and later vice-president of health sciences at McMaster University in Hamilton and as president of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, which he founded in 1982 and led for 14 years, Mustard became increasingly preoccupied with the social and economic forces that determine human health. He was fascinated by a British study of civil servants in the I late 1980s that showed that those lowest in the hierarchy were the most likely to die of strokes, heart attacks, cancer, accidents and suicide. “The puzzle to me,” says Mustard, “was what was causing this.”

Clues emerged from discoveries in the neurosciences pointing to the critical importance that stimulation—in games, play and interactions with adults and other children—has for brain development in the early years of life. Without the right stimulation, some brain pathways may not develop. And a growing body of evidence suggests that can have a dire effect not only on intellectual ability but on future health. The reason: impaired neural development may affect an individual’s response to life’s challenges by keeping stress hormones such as cortisol—which can suppress the immune system—at high levels. “It’s increasingly evident,” says Mustard, “that brain development can determine the risk of health problems in later life—and to ignore this is pretty stupid.”

Governments are beginning to pay attention. According to Liberal MP John Godfrey, the federal government’s new commitment to extend maternity and parental leave benefits to a year from six months “was a direct reflection of what Fraser has been saying.” In semi-retirement, Mustard remains a persistent voice for a cause he insists is critically important not only for children, but for Canada’s success as a nation in the 21st century.

Mark Nichols