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Poor Education May Lead to Poor Health

Navigating a complex health system takes a more literate consumer, experts say

SATURDAY, Oct. 10 (HealthDay News) -- Adults with a poor education are also likely to have poor health, a growing body of evidence suggests.

Study after study has confirmed the link, and now experts are zeroing in on the reasons for it and what can be done.

"Persons with a higher education tend to have better jobs, and better income, better benefits," said David R. Williams, a professor of public health at the Harvard School of Public Health and staff director for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Commission to Build a Healthier America.

Those benefits, he said, go beyond health benefits to include such other factors as having the leeway to take a day off or part of a day to see a doctor. People with higher levels of education "tend to have more resources to cope with stress and life, to live in better neighborhoods," Williams said. They have stress, of course, but also more resources to cope with it -- such as access to a health club to exercise away the stress -- than do people with less education, he said.

Being better educated also means that a person is more likely to understand the world of modern medicine, said Erik Angner, an assistant professor of philosophy and economics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who has researched the link between literacy and happiness.

"Modern medicine is incredibly complex," Angner said, "and if you lack the constellation of skills -- including basic reading and numerical tasks -- required to function adequately in the health-care environment, you might find it harder to effectively request, receive and understand your [medical] care."

A report issued in May by Williams's commission found that, compared with college graduates, adults who did not graduate from high school were 2.5 times as likely to be in less than very good health. High school graduates, it found, were nearly twice as likely as college graduates to be in less than very good health.

The report suggested that factors outside of the medical system play an important role in determining people's health, including how long they will live. Access to medical care is crucial, the report authors said, but it isn't enough to improve health.

What's needed, they suggested, is increased focus on schools and education -- encouraging people to obtain more education -- as well as more promotion of healthy living in the home, community and workplace.

From a "big picture" perspective, Williams said, health promotion should be emphasized and taught more -- and earlier -- in schools. Health habits in adulthood, he said, are built during childhood. It's also crucial, he said, to have a healthy neighborhood and workplace.

Angner said that he's found in his recent research that the older adults he has studied who could read and answer questions on medical forms without assistance were likely to be happier than those who could not.

Improving literacy -- and thus improving the ability to read and understand medical forms -- could boost health among adults, he said.

For adults whose education was stopped early, returning to school might help their health as well as their job prospects, the experts say. And if that's not an option, Angner said, simply trying to improve reading skills should make a difference.

More information

The National Institute for Literacy has more on literacy services.

SOURCES: David R. Williams, Ph.D., professor, public health, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston; Erik Angner, Ph.D., assistant professor, philosophy and economics, University of Alabama at Birmingham; "Reaching America's Health Potential Among Adults: A State-by-State Look at Adult Health," May 2009, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

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