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Education Linked to Heart Disease and Cardiovascular Health

Sep 09, 2010

For the first time, researchers have linked higher education with heart disease and stroke around the world. They found that while formal education leads to better cardiovascular health in high-income countries, it seems to have the opposite correlation in many low-income and developing countries.

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Education Leads to Healthier Lifestyles - For Some

Ample research has shown that having a college degree is linked to higher earning potential, greater civic participation and an overall improved quality of life. But did you also know that it can lead to greater cardiovascular health?

A study recently published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association showed that the incidence of heart disease, stroke and certain cardiovascular risk factors decreased as education levels increased - in high-income countries. Among some groups in low- and middle-income countries, incidence of heart attack and stroke actually increased slightly with higher levels of education.

Previous research on this correlation had focused primarily on highly industrialized nations like the U.S. But as Dr. Abhinav Goyal, lead author of the current study, points out, 'We can't simply take studies that are conducted in high-income countries, particularly as they relate to socioeconomic status and health outcomes, and extrapolate them to low- and middle-income countries.' Their living circumstances are different and so, as it turns out, are their health habits.

One possible explanation for the correlation in high-income countries between advanced education and good heart-health is the link between smoking habits and education. In these countries, smoking typically decreases as education levels increase. But in low- and middle-income countries, the most educated women actually have higher smoking rates than their less educated peers. Researchers suggest that this and similar unhealthy habits may be leading to their higher incidence of cardiovascular disease.

Quitting Smoking

However, American women aren't off the hook either. As it turns out, it's primarily educated men in affluent countries who smoke less. The current study found that almost half of well-educated women in high-income countries smoke, as compared to only 35% of those with the lowest levels of education.

The problem is a serious one: Heart disease and stroke continue to be the leading cause of death worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, 17.5 million people died from cardiovascular diseases in 2005, and over 80% of those deaths were in low- and middle-income countries.

The take-home message? 'We can't assume that just because certain groups are more educated than others that they're going to have healthier lifestyles,' cautions Dr. Goyal. 'Everyone needs to be educated about the risk of heart disease in particular, and counseled to adopt healthy lifestyles and to quit smoking.'

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