Women with higher education have less risk of heart disease

November 21, 2001

Women with college or advanced degrees may have a lower risk of heart disease than less-educated women, according to a new study.

The study, published in the November/December issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, shows that higher educational attainment, as a marker for socioeconomic status, is associated with less calcification of the arteries, suggesting that better-educated women have less risk of developing heart disease.

Although previous studies have linked education level and heart disease, this is among the first to use a high-resolution imaging technique to measure an early sign of impending heart disease in women without symptoms, says Linda C. Gallo, Ph.D., of the San Diego State University/University of California, San Diego joint doctoral program in clinical psychology.

"All participants were asymptomatic for coronary disease, and these findings therefore add to a growing number of studies suggesting that the effects of [socioeconomic status] emerge very early in the atherosclerotic process," she says.

Biological, behavioral and psychosocial risk factors for heart disease have been shown to be more common among less-educated women than among educated women. Although adjusting for these risk factors diminishes the effect of education on calcification somewhat, the effect remained.

"The results from previous research and from the current study suggest that established risk factors may contribute to the association between SES and coronary disease, but they do not completely explain it," Gallo says.

The survey included 308 postmenopausal women from the University of Pittsburgh's Healthy Women Study, which followed women over several years and included clinic visits at which the women underwent examination with electron beam tomography, a non-invasive method for measuring the formation of calcium in the arteries.

The analysis showed an inverse linear trend between calcium deposits and education level. In general, women with advanced degrees had the least calcification, while high school graduates and high school dropouts had the most. College graduates fell in the middle.

However, this relationship was not completely linear or consistent across parts of the circulatory systems. For example, women with some college education actually had slightly more calcification of their coronary arteries than women with less education. And women with advanced degrees had more aortic calcification than college grads.

"Previous research suggests that individuals who fail to complete a program of education might have worse health than those who simply do not pursue a higher educational stage," the researchers explain.
The study was supported with funding from the National Institutes of Health and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health.

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

Posted by the Center for the Advancement of Health (http://www.cfah.org). For more research news and information, go to our special section devoted to health and behavior in the "Peer-Reviewed Journals" area of Eurekalert!, http://www.eurekalert.org/jrnls/cfah/. For information about the Center, call Ira Allen, iallen@cfah.org, (202) 387-2829.

Center for Advancing Health

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