• Learning Matters: How Education Affects Health

    The recession has been over for nearly six years, and although recovery can be seen in many aspects of our economy -- including employment statistics and housing data -- the same can't be said for our public schools.

    At the start of the 2014-15 school year, more than half the states were providing less funding per student than they had before the recession began in 2007. In fact, 14 states have cut per-pupil spending by more than 10 percent. Kansas took things even further, cutting funding for education by more than $50 million during the school year to help cover a massive $400 million budget shortfall.

    What many legislators fail to realize is that cutting funding for education now raises health care costs in the future.

    Photo courtesy of Reach Out and Read

    A physician shares a book with a young patient as part of the Reach Out and Read program. Research indicates that education improves health and increases life expectancy.

    How are health and education related? Steven Woolf, M.D., M.P.H., professor of family medicine and population health at Virginia Commonwealth University and director of the VCU Center on Society and Health, recently gave a presentation to the AAFP Board of Directors that illustrated the significant impact education has on health. Based on reports published last year by the Center on Society and Health's Education and Health Initiative, Woolf's presentation focused on how education can increase a person's life expectancy and the quality of that life.

    The authors of the report put it succinctly, "Disinvestment in education leads to more illness and higher medical care costs that offset the intended 'savings' of these same budget cuts."

    For example, in 2011 the prevalence of diabetes in the United States was 15 percent for adults who did not complete high school. That was twice as high as the rate among college graduates. In the same year, more than one-fourth of adults without a high school diploma were smokers, compared to 8 percent of college graduates. Adults who don't finish high school also can expect to live nine years less than their college-educated peers. And that already sizable gap is widening.

    The reasons for the health disparities are numerous, and many should be fairly obvious. Education typically leads to better jobs, more money and many other benefits, including better health insurance, which leads to better access to quality health care. Higher earnings also allow workers to afford homes in safer neighborhoods as well as healthier diets. The median wage for college graduates in 2012 was one-and-a-half times higher than that of high school graduates and more than double that of workers who lacked a high school diploma.

    People with lower incomes often live in neighborhoods or communities that present numerous challenges that affect their health, including less access to supermarkets and healthy food choices, less access to green space or other recreational areas, higher crime rates, lower quality schools, fewer jobs and increased levels of pollution.

    Low-income areas also often have shortages of primary care physicians and other health care professionals. However, the report points out that people with lower levels of education have worse health than those with more education even when access to care is equal. For example, a 2011 survey of patients in the same health system found that nearly 70 percent of college graduates ages 25-64 described their health as very good or excellent, compared to 32 percent of adults who had not completed high school.

    The bottom line is that strengthening schools likely would make our nation healthier and reduce health care spending in the long run. Even if our legislators fail to see the connection between education and health, we can make sure that our patients -- especially children and their parents -- do.

    In 2013, 66 percent of U.S. fourth-graders were reading below proficiency levels. Part of the problem is that parents who were not read to as children may not understand the importance of reading to their own kids. In fact, less than half of young children in this country are read to daily, and minority and low-income children are less likely to be read to than others.

    So what can we do? Last year, the AAFP entered into an agreement with the Reach Out and Read National Center. That program trains and supports physicians, who give new books to children ages 6 months to 5 years and advise parents about the importance of reading aloud. The program aims to promote early childhood literacy and language development, particularly in low-income families.

    Graduation rates -- like immunization rates -- have a huge impact on the health of our communities. Reach Out and Read offers numerous resources for physicians who would like to participate.

    Robert Lee, M.D., is a member of the AAFP Board of Directors.


    The opinions and views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the opinions and views of the American Academy of Family Physicians. This blog is not intended to provide medical, financial, or legal advice. All comments are moderated and will be removed if they violate our Terms of Use.