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50+: Live Better, Longer

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Middle-Aged Health Behavior a Matter of Degrees

When medical conditions arose, study found college-educated people were more apt to change their lifestyles

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Mary Elizabeth Dallas

HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Aug. 29 (HealthDay News) -- Middle-aged Americans with a college degree are more likely to make healthy lifestyle changes when confronted with a health problem than those who dropped out of college or never went, new research finds.

The way in which people respond to new medical conditions could affect their health in the future, cautioned the author of the study published in the September issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

"This study documents that there are very large differences by education in smoking and physical activity trajectories in middle age, even though many health habits are already set by this stage of the life course," said author Rachel Margolis, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Western Ontario, in a journal news release.

"Health behavior changes are surprisingly common between ages 50 and 75, and the fact that better-educated middle-aged people are more likely to stop smoking, start physical activity, and maintain both of these behaviors over time has important health ramifications," she added.

Her findings involved more than 16,600 people ranging in age from 50 to 75 who participated in the U.S. Health and Retirement Study. Although 41 percent of the participants who dropped out of college reported smoking at some point between the ages of 50 and 75, only 15 percent of those who graduated college smoked in the given time frame.

Meanwhile, 14 percent of the college graduates in the study were consistently physically active, compared to just 2 percent of those who didn't graduate from high school.

"I found that having more education increased the odds that a person made a healthy behavior change when faced with a new chronic health condition. This finding helps explain why there are educational differences in chronic disease management and health outcomes," Margolis concluded.

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