Behind the headlines: Can a university degree help reduce BP levels?

Higher education is good for your heart, especially if you are a woman, according to newspaper reports.

Education has links to BP level (Photograph: Istock)
Education has links to BP level (Photograph: Istock)

Scientists at Brown University, Rhode Island, found a correlation between BP and education over a lifetime, which was greater for women.

What did the study examine?
The research examined 30 years of data from 3,890 patient records from the Framingham offspring study.

Participants were divided into three groups by length of education: less than 12 years, 13 to 16 years and more than 17 years.

The researchers separated the long-term effects of education on BP changes from the effects of other factors that may have caused baseline differences in BP.

The study found that women educated for 17 or more years had readings 3.26mmHg lower than those who were less educated. For men, readings were 2.26mmHg lower.

After controlling for influences such as smoking, drinking, obesity and BP medication, the benefit of education remained. For women a degree-level education resulted in a reading of 2.86mmHg lower than those less well educated, and for men a reading 1.25mmHg lower.

What did the researchers say?
Professor Eric Loucks, who conducted the study, said gender differences appeared to become more pronounced in later life. Education may have a greater impact on women's health, because low educational attainment is linked to other health factors, he said.

'Women with less education are more likely to be experiencing depression, more likely to be single parents, more likely to be living in impoverished areas and more likely to be below the poverty line,' he said.

Professor Loucks said public health could be enhanced by improving access to higher education. 'Socioeconomic gradients in health are very complex,' he said. One of the big potential areas to intervene on is education.'

How relevant is the research?
The British Heart Foundation said the findings supported evidence about the link between economic deprivation and raised BP.

But Natasha Stewart, senior cardiac nurse at the charity, said the research also had several limitations. 'It only showed up a small BP drop among women and an insignificant decrease among men,' she said.

'It has its limitations too because the relatively small number of people involved were mostly from a white, suburban background. It doesn't investigate whether the findings apply to all ethnic groups.'

Informing patients
  • BP appears to be affected by socio-economic factors linked to educational level.
  • However, the absolute drop in BP caused by higher levels of education is small.
  • Improving access to higher education may be a useful measure to improve public health.

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