Education Linked To Good Health Habits, Even In Old Age

September 23, 1998

Elderly men and women with higher levels of education were more physically active, smoked less, were less heavy, and expressed a greater sense of control over their lives than did their less well-educated peers, an ongoing study of healthy older adults reveals.

"Educational attainment may influence health through its association with many individual-level psychosocial and biological factors where these effects are evident even in late life," writes Laura D. Kubzansky, PhD, and her colleagues in the September-October issue of Psychosomatic Medicine. "These important findings link education, which is generally defined in young adulthood, to a series of experiences in late adulthood linked more proximally to poor health." The researchers, from the Harvard School of Public Health and the Andrus Gerontology Center at the University of Southern California, interviewed nearly 1,200 men and women in their 70s from New Haven, Connecticut; East Boston, Massachusetts; and Durham, North Carolina.

All were participating in ongoing John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation studies of successful aging and had been judged to be in the top third for their age group in cognitive and physical functioning.

Even among these higher functioning older adults, Kubzansky and her colleagues found, education was associated with a number of behaviors, biological conditions, and psychological factors related to better health and functioning.

Compared to those with less education, those with more smoked fewer cigarettes and exercised more. They also had better lung function, higher levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol, and lower weight. Finally, those with more education were happier and had greater mastery and self-efficacy than did those with less.

The benefits of higher socioeconomic status on health have been well-documented, but some researchers have suggested that these benefits decline with age. In the new study, however, the link between education and a variety of health-related factors suggests "that social disparities may continue to affect health outcomes in late life."

"These factors reflect how individuals interact with their social surroundings well into old age and may serve as pathways to different diseases and health outcomes," Kubzansky and her colleagues report.

Their research was supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Aging.

Psychosomatic Medicine is the official peer-reviewed journal of the American Psychosomatic Society, published bimonthly. For information about the journal, contact Joel E. Dimsdale, MD, editor-in-chief, at (619) 543-5468.

Posted by the Center for the Advancement of Health For information about the Center, contact Richard Hebert, (202) 387-2829.

Center for Advancing Health

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