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Learning boosts health

Study suggests continued education contributes to blood pressure wellness

A study published Monday by online journal BMC Public Health found that people with more years of higher education, especially women, experienced lower blood pressure readings for decades afterward. Eric Loucks, assistant professor of community health at Brown University and one of the authors of the study, said in a Brown press release that blood pressure acts as one of the primary biological influences on heart disease. The potential link between schooling and blood pressure could indicate that improving access to education might in turn improve public health.

Loucks' research team analyzed the patient records of nearly 4,000 men and women involved in the Framingham Offspring Study, which followed residents of Framingham, Mass. between 1971-2001, according to the study's abstract. The team found that women who had completed at least 17 years of schooling had systolic blood pressure readings that were, on average, 3.26 millimeters of mercury (mmHg) lower during the 30-year period than the blood pressure readings of women who did not finish high school. Men who attended graduate school, meanwhile, demonstrated an average difference of 2.26 mmHG lower than their less-educated counterparts.

The study states that education has long been known to retain an inverse association with cardiovascular disease incidence in developed countries and aims to investigate if "blood pressure may be an explanatory biological mechanism" in this finding.

Loucks' team tried to pin down the influence of education by controlling for other factors such as blood pressure medication, obesity, smoking and drinking. Once adjusted for those factors, the trend persisted, although to a lesser degree, as graduate school gave women a 2.86 mmHG benefit and men a 1.25 mmHG benefit, the study states.

The research went a step further by indexing the blood pressure readings to make them equal at the beginning of the study period. This would allow the researchers to see whether their measurements were based on a static difference early in life or whether the differences increased during the span of the study. For women, the most educated group upheld a 2.53 mmHG benefit compared to the least educated, while men retained a marginal 0.34 mmHG difference, according to the press release.

Dr. Christopher M. Rembold, specialist in cardiovascular medicine at the University Health System, suggested that although educational experience can be associated with lower blood pressure, there is not necessarily causation between the two.

"You could also say that there's an association between reading newspapers and living longer too, but that doesn't mean that holding them in your hand is going to make you live longer," Rembold said. "They've looked at hundreds and hundreds of parameters and looked to see if they predicted people would die or have low blood pressure or high blood pressure. And when you do that you can get associations that have to do with other things ... What's probably going on is that people who are more educated also know that it's better to exercise, stay away from cigarettes, stay away from drugs that raise their blood pressure and treat their bodies better."

Rembold noted several competing factors in Table 1 of the study, which charts baseline characteristics of the participants under the comparison of educational attainment. For example, the Body Mass Indexes of more highly educated women were substantially lower, at 23.2 BMI, than less educated women, who averaged 24.5 BMI. It also indicates that the percentage of current smokers among the most-educated males was 26.3, compared to 49.4 percent of males with fewer than 12 years of schooling.

Loucks explained the gender discrepancy by noting that women with less education are more likely to suffer from depression, single-parenthood and living conditions below the poverty line. The socioeconomic implications can only extend so far, however, since the study only draws from a relatively homogenized white suburban community.