How Your Education Level May Be Linked to Your Risk of Heart Disease

diploma, graduation
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People who do not finish high school are more likely to develop heart disease later in life than those who complete graduate school, a new study finds.

In the study, the more education a person had, the lower his or her risk of heart disease was, and vice versa, according to the study.

The risk of heart disease was the highest for the people who went only to grade school and didn't go on to high school, the study found. More than 1 in 2 people with only a grade-school level of education went on to develop heart disease in their lifetime. In comparison, for people who completed graduate school or professional school, more than 1 in 3 went on to develop heart disease, the researchers found. That means that the people with a grade-school level of education had a roughly 20 percent higher risk of developing heart disease in their lifetime compared with the people who completed graduate or professional school. [5 Surprising Ways to Be Heart Healthy]

This is the first time that a study has looked at how differences in education levels are linked to a person's lifetime risk of heart disease, the researchers, led by Dr. Yasuhiko Kubota, a public health researcher at the University of Minnesota, wrote in the study. Still, the study did not prove that a person's level of education causes or prevents heart disease.

The research, which was published today (June 12) in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, included data on nearly 14,000 adults who were part of a long-running study called the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study. From 1987 through 1989, the ARIC study recruited men and women ages 45 to 65 who had never had heart disease. In addition to taking health measurements when the people joined the study, ARIC researchers also collected data on their education level, job and income.

In the new study, the researchers looked at data on people in the ARIC study through 2013. Over the course of the study period, more than 4,500 people developed heart disease. Overall, the lifetime risk of developing heart disease by age 85 was 49 percent for white men, 34 percent for white women, 52 percent for African American men and 45 percent for African American women.

But when the researchers also factored in a person's education levels, the risk levels changed. For example, for the people in the study who did not go to high school, the lifetime risk of developing heart disease was 55 percent, compared with a lifetime risk of 36 percent for those who completed graduate school.

The researchers also noted that there was a wide gap between the people who graduated high school and those who did not, particularly among women. Women with a high school diploma had a 34 percent risk of getting heart disease during their lifetime, whereas women without a high school diploma had a 49 percent risk. For men, graduating from high school was associated with a 47 percent risk of heart disease, compared with a 55 percent risk for men who didn't finish high school.

Previous studies have found that other socioeconomic factors — such as income level, job and education level of a person's parents — are also associated with heart disease risk. But the researchers noted that finishing high school was linked to a lower risk of heart disease regardless of a person's income, job or parents' education. [10 Amazing Facts About Your Heart]

The study had several limitations, the researchers wrote. For example, the researchers did not know when each person in the study completed his or her education. In addition, they noted that a person's age could have played a role in the type of education they received. For example, the oldest people in the study were in elementary school during the Great Depression, and the youngest people in the study might have been in racially segregated schools.

In an editorial that was published alongside the study in the same journal, Nancy Adler, director of the Center for Health and Community at the University of California, San Francisco; and Maria Glymour, an associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the same institute, wrote that the new study supported the idea of considering a low education level a risk factor for heart disease. (Adler and Glymour were not involved in the study.)

The increased risk of heart disease "associated with low education is comparable to that of other major risk factors," Adler and Glymour wrote, and knowing patients' education levels could help doctors make decisions about their health.

Originally published on Live Science.

Staff Writer
Sara is a staff writer for Live Science, covering health. She grew up outside of Philadelphia and studied biology at Hamilton College in upstate New York. When she's not writing, she can be found at the library, checking out a big stack of books.