Want to improve Georgia's well-being? Talk to your baby

Credit: Fotolia/TNS

Credit: Fotolia/TNS

Words matter – particularly as it relates to early childhood vocabulary development, researchers have found.

While affluent children have a listening vocabulary of about 20,000 words, poor children have a vocabulary of only 3,000 words. And by the time children enter school, neural development is nearly complete, meaning children with limited vocabularies find it challenging to catch up with their peers.

On the surface this seems like an education issue, but Georgia public health officials have found that the long-term health impact can be significant — children with an extensive vocabulary perform better in school and are more likely to become college-educated adults, suffering less from ailments such as hypertension, obesity and depression.

"There is no way we can separate health and education," said Dr. Jennifer Stapel-Wax, director of infant and toddler clinical research operations at the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta, and proponent of the program.

State health officials are addressing this health-education intersection with a new program called "Talk With Me Baby."

Recognized by the White House, the program attempts to "bridge the word gap," by providing parents with tips and resources to improve the language nutrition of their children.

The program's goal is to reach all metro Atlanta newborns by 2017 and all Georgia newborns by 2020.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health is partially funding the program with an award of $200,000 a year for up to five years.

"I think this is prob­ably the most im­port­ant work we're do­ing right now," Brenda Fitzger­ald, Geor­gia's Health Com­mis­sion­er said, a telling statement about an initiative that doesn't readily appear to be about health.