The discovery was made in a 35-year study of nearly 1,000 people born in the New Zealand city of Dunedin.
Scientists from three different universities studied the lives of the individuals until they were aged 38.
They found a fifth of those under observation were responsible for 81% of criminal convictions and 66% of welfare benefits of the whole study group.
This fifth of the group also consumed 75% of drug prescriptions, spent more than half of nights spent in hospitals and smoked more than half the cigarettes.
And, the study found, the people who would end up in the group could be accurately predicted at the age of three through a 45-minute ‘brain health’ test.
The test involved assessing intelligence, receptive language and motor skills.
The fifth of the group accounted for the “lion’s share of social costs such as crime, welfare dependence and healthcare needs as adults”, according to the study, published in journal Nature Human Behaviour.
These brain tests give hope of early intervention to avoid such high social costs, said the scientists, from King’s College London, Duke University in North Carolina, the University of Otago in New Zealand.
“There is a really powerful connection from children’s early beginnings to where they end up,” said King’s College Professor Avshalom Caspi said.
“The purpose of this was not to use these data to complicate children’s lives any further.
“It’s to say these children – all children – need a lot of resources, and helping them could yield a remarkable return on investment when they grow up.”