I am often asked, if I could choose just one policy intervention to improve health what would it be? The more I reflect on this question, the more convinced I am that the answer is to invest in quality education for all children, with special emphasis on education in early childhood. Education helps us live longer, think better, and be healthier. As graduation season is upon us, here are a few reflections on the central role of education in shaping our physical and mental health.
Study after study has shown that the higher our education level, the longer we will potentially live and the healthier those years are likely to be. College graduates live almost nine years longer than those who did not graduate from high school. Those years of higher education can also lead to a range of health benefits, including a lower risk of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. The health effects of education are also intergenerational—the infant mortality rate per 1,000 live births for mothers who did not graduate from high school is close to double that of women who earned college degrees.
Even if a young person does manage to stay in school, poor academic performance can have health implications regardless of whether that student graduates or not. When high school students have lower grades, they are, for example, less likely to exercise and moderate their television viewing, and more likely to engage in unsafe behaviors like carrying a weapon.
There are several mechanisms that explain why the amount of education a person receives is such an important determinant of well-being. Take, for example, why better grades seem to lead to better life choices. Robert Hahn and Benedict Truman speculate that several influences could be at play, including the possibility that students who avoid risky behavior perform better as a result of their choices, as such hazardous activities could impede academic improvement. Hahn and Truman also suggest the influence of “other factors, such as strong values, [which] promote both academic achievement and self-protective behaviors.”
Read the full piece at Psychology Today.