Education is undeniably one of the factors contributing to a good life. Graduates with a higher level of education are not only more likely to find employment but also tend to earn more than their less educated peers.
Recently, the Australian Sax Institute, an organisation which provides research evidence on which law makers base health policies, revealed another reason why equitable access to education is vital: there is a strong and lasting correlation between education and health.
Researchers have been studying the influence of health education on school students’ physical and mental well-being for some time. Only recently though, the long-term effects of education on health and the link between education and the most common diseases known as the leading causes of death in most nations have been examined more closely.
The Sax Institute’s “45 and UP Study” found that the negative effects of educational disadvantage on health persist throughout our life span. According to Dr. Rosemary Korda of the Australian National University, “the lower your level of education, the more likely you are to have a heart attack or a stroke”.
Heart attack rates of adults between the ages of 45 and 64 with no school certificate were found to be approximately 150 per cent higher than those of adults of the same age with university degrees – a difference much bigger than researchers had expected. With one person dying every 27 minutes of heart disease in Australia, it is the leading cause of death. Older adults who did not finish high school were found to also be 50 per cent more likely to have a stroke than university graduates.
Although researchers described these findings as disturbing, there is a silver lining: the figures highlight just how much cardiovascular disease appears to be preventable with better education and policies aimed at reducing educational disadvantage. Governments should take notice. Such statistics are yet another reminder about the importance of addressing the disparities causing increased health risks for less educated members of the population who live in households with lower incomes.
Studies into the correlation between education and health are not new. A decade ago, the National Poverty Centre of the University of Michigan emphasised the implications for health policy of research by Harvard and Princeton academics who concluded that educational policies have the potential to improve the health of a population significantly.
A number of studies found that better education lowers the risk of diabetes, being overweight or obese, and the likelihood of excessive alcohol consumption and illicit drug use. Much of the difference is attributed to behaviours, to health choices which reflect people’s knowledge about keeping themselves and their families well. But other factors contribute to the disparities.
Higher education often results in higher wages, enabling better access to nutritious food options as well as preventive and remedial health care. The educated can often avoid exposure to unhealthy working conditions which the lowest paid, least educated workers, may be forced to accept.
However, education alone will not diminish health disparities. Ultimately, poverty eradication is vital to remove other factors contributing to ill health, anxiety and depression. The power to shape one’s own destiny and the resulting anticipation of a comfortable life for instance may inspire the more privileged to reject the escapism of excessive alcohol consumption and illicit drug use.
There need to be jobs created for motivated individuals who tried to overcome disadvantage by obtaining university degrees which unfortunately then proved useless.
Fair wages also empower citizens to reside in healthier environments and to reject cheap hazardous products.
Addressing persistent inequalities in education, wages and employment opportunities is in every nation’s best interest. Sharing the privilege of education and thus health will benefit even the already educated and well situated upper and middle class: Better educated, thus healthier individuals were found to take less days off work. The resulting increase in productivity should please even cost-conscious unsympathetic investors and employers.