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For better health, it pays to stay in school

8 Nov, 2010

ResearchBlogging.orgChildren, at prep schoolIt is well-documented that those who are better educated have better physical health than those who are less educated. This is true throughout the world despite differences in healthcare systems. But why is this the case?

Dr Wendy Johnson, from the University of Edinburgh, and colleagues including Wellcome Trust research fellow Dr David Batty, studied how education moderates genetic and environmental factors involved in health. And it turns out that the better educated are not necessarily constitutionally healthier, but more likely to escape factors that lead to poor health.

The researchers looked at data from a survey of over 30,000 Danish twins, containing questions about levels of education as well as a health assessment. Their analysis showed that there are greater levels of health variance between ‘sick’ and ‘well’ in those with low levels of education. This is true for both men and women. Those who were better educated were, on average, more likely to be ‘well’.

So why is this? Dr Johnson and colleagues suggest that the better educated are often of a higher socio-economic status. As such, they can avoid environmental factors that contribute to the expression of genetic vulnerabilities to disease. For example, if you are genetically predisposed to lung disease, air pollution and habits such as smoking might contribute to development of illness. But with education often comes both knowledge about environmental and personal factors associated with disease and greater opportunities to choose where and how you will live. These can allow you to live in a way that may prevent illness.

From a genetic viewpoint, the data suggest that it’s not that those who are better educated have fewer of the gene variants associated with disease – it’s just that those genes are expressed at lower levels thanks to living in a more healthy way. It is nurture rather than nature that explains why those with more education are healthier, yet it is through nature that poorer health among the less educated is manifested.

So how can we use this knowledge to improve health for all? Do we need to increase general levels of education? Or would we be better to remove causes of environmental stresses, such as poor housing? Johnson suggests a combination of the two might be best. “It’s not simply a matter of providing universal medical care – the health gradient between the poorly- and well-educated exists to a similar degree in countries that provide free public healthcare and those that don’t.”

“One way to make things better might be to improve health education at the secondary school level to help students manage their lives better – giving them the knowledge of how to get a good diet for instance.

“This would help the people who won’t go to university – and these are the people who really need [information about health].”

  • Johnson W, Kyvik KO, Mortensen EL, Skytthe A, Batty GD, & Deary IJ (2010). Education reduces the effects of genetic susceptibilities to poor physical health. International journal of epidemiology, 39 (2), 406-14 PMID: 19861402
  • Benjamin Thompson

    Benjamin Thompson is undertaking a work experience placement at the Wellcome Trust.

    Image credit: Anthea Sieveking, Wellcome Images
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