College education protects middle-age caucasian women against obesity

April 28, 2005

There are significant racial differences in the association between education level and weight change for middle-aged women, according to an article in the March 14 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, by Tené T. Lewis, PhD, of Rush University Medical Center.

Lewis and colleagues examined the interactive effects of race and three levels of education: low, high school or less; moderate, some college; and high, college degree or more, on body mass index (BMI) and changes in BMI. BMI is calculated as weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in meters. Researchers followed 2019 women whose average age was approximately 46 years old from Chicago, Detroit, Boston and Pittsburgh for four years as part of the Study of Women Health Across the Nation (SWAN).

Lewis found there were no differences in BMI in African American and white women with a high school education or less. However, Lewis found that black-white disparities in BMI widen with increasing levels of education.

"We observed significant racial differences in the effects of education on weight for middle-aged women. At all levels of education, African American women were equally heavy, while white women were thinner with increasing baseline educational attainment. These results are consistent with previous studies of young girls, adolescents and adult women. In this respect African American women do not seem to benefit from educational attainment in the same way that white women do."

The authors state that "While overall rates of obesity have increased dramatically in the United States, the prevalence rates of overweight and obesity remain disproportionately higher for African American women than for white women. Although the excess weight observed in African American women has been primarily considered a result of low socioeconomic status (SES), evidence from previous studies suggests that SES may influence overweight and obesity for women of different racial groups."

"The lack of an observable benefit on BMI for educated African American women is particularly alarming given their disproportionately high rates of obesity and obesity-related illnesses," Lewis said. "Because race-education patterns appear to be well established by midlife, prevention efforts aimed at reducing the prevalence of obesity in African American women should begin in adolescence or early adulthood."
-end-
SWAN is a multi-site longitudinal, epidemiologic study designed to examine the health of women during their middle years. The study examines the physical, biological, psychological and social changes during this transitional period. The goal of SWAN's research is to help scientists, health care providers and women learn how mid-life experiences affect health and quality of life during aging. The study is co-sponsored by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), the National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Office of Research on Women's Health, and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Rush University Medical Center

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