More Years of Education Improves Health

A new Australian study has shown that extending the years of education improves health outcomes. The study shows that more education improves people’s diet and their tendency to have more regular exercise but not necessarily to avoid risky health behaviours such as smoking. The results imply that increasing the proportion of students, particularly low SES students, who complete Year 12 will have a positive effect on health outcomes.

The study examined the impact of increasing the minimum school leaving age from 14 to 15 in Australian states on subsequent health behaviours and outcomes. It compared the health outcomes of people who left school before the changes with those of people who left school after the changes.

It found that the additional year of schooling generally had improved overall health and physical functioning. It had a positive effect on dietary behaviours, alcohol consumption and physical activity, but little effect on smoking. The authors speculate that the ages of smoking initiation may be too young to be affected by schooling reforms and note that the consequences of smoking were not widely known when many cohorts in the study were in school.

The study was done by academics from the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research at the University of Melbourne and is the first of its kind in Australia to establish a causal link between education and health. It was published in a recent special issue of the academic journal Social Science and Medicine on educational attainment and adult health.

The authors constructed two aggregate measures of health behaviour. One was a healthy eating index including eating fruit and vegetables seven days a week, avoiding fatty, high cholesterol foods and drinking skimmed or low-fat milk. The other measure was an index of healthy lifestyle choices including eating breakfast seven times a week, drinking alcohol moderately, exercising at least three times per week at moderate or intensive physical exertion, and not smoking.

The results showed that one more year of education raised the healthy eating index by 18 per cent of a standard deviation on the preferred estimation method which is a significant increase. There was only a small effect on the lifestyle choice measure (six per cent of a standard deviation), but it was statistically significant.

There were significant differences in the effect of increases in education on particular health behaviours and lifestyle choices. Education appears to have more effect on diet. The results show that one more year of education significantly increases the total number of days per week eating fruits by six per cent of a standard deviation, the probability of eating vegetables seven days a week by ten per cent and the total number of days per week eating vegetables by 14 per cent of a standard deviation. It also increases the probability of choosing to consume low-fat milk instead of full-fat milk by five per cent. However, education does not seem to have a significant impact on the probability of avoiding fatty food including fried potatoes, French fries, hot chips, or wedges.

Numerous overseas studies also show that people with more education generally live longer and have healthier lives. As the Introduction to the special issue of Social Science and Medicine states:

The positive association between an individual’s educational attainment and their health and longevity is one of the strongest, pervasive, and most robust in the social sciences. [p.1]

Individuals who do not complete school are likely as adults to have less knowledge about health, higher rates of illness and earlier deaths than those who complete school.

The incidence of low education and poor health are also strongly associated with socio-economic background. Those from poor backgrounds are more likely to leave school before completing Year 12 and are more likely to have greater health risks.

According to the latest Report on Government Services, 26 per cent of the potential Year 12 population in Australia did not complete Year 12 in 2013. However, 32 per cent of low socio-economic status (SES) students, 32 per cent of remote area students and 59 per cent of very remote area students did not complete Year 12 compared to 21 per cent of high SES students. Other data show that about 45 per cent of Indigenous students do not complete Year 12.

There are also major health inequalities in Australia. According to a report by the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling at the University of Canberra, the most socio-economically disadvantaged are twice as likely to have a long-term health condition and will die on average three years earlier than the most affluent. Results from the 2011–12 National Health Survey show that low SES people and those living in remote areas are more likely to engage in risky health behaviours such as smoking, not exercising, and being overweight and/or obese. For example, 21 per cent of those in the lowest SES quintile and 22 per cent living in outer regional and remote areas smoke daily compared to 10 per cent in the highest SES quintile.

The new study suggests that increasing Year 12 completion rates will contribute to better health outcomes, especially for low SES and other disadvantaged students. This is apart from the contribution higher completion rates would also make to increasing social equity in education, participation in further education and training, workforce skills and overall economic prosperity.

However, the prospects for increasing Year 12 completion rates have been set back by the refusal of the Abbott Government and several state governments to commit to the full Gonski funding plan. Not only is this bad for education and economic growth but it is also bad for the future health of Australians. Gonski is good for greater equity in education and health outcomes.

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