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Going to School Good for Heart Health

Study Shows Heart-Friendly Reason to Get More Education
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

April 18, 2006 -- The more years you spend in school, the better it may be for heart health.

A study in The Journal of the American Medical Association shows that among young adults, those with the highest levels of education had the lowest risk of coronary artery calcium.

Coronary artery calcium is a warning sign of atherosclerosis, in which arteries are hardened, narrowed, and even blocked by plaque.

The coronary arteries supply heart muscle with blood. Clog them with plaque, and the risk of a heart attackheart attack goes up.

What does education level have to do with the coronary arteries? Quite a bit, report Lijing Yan, PhD, MPH, and colleagues. Yan works in Chicago at the preventive medicine department of Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.

Years in School

Data came from a 15-year study of 2,913 young adults. When the study started in the mid-1980s, participants were 18-30 years old.

The group included 560 black men, 748 black women, 783 white men, and 822 white women. Participants lived in Chicago; Minneapolis; Oakland, Calif.; or Birmingham, Ala.

Participants' blood pressure, cholesterol level, waist circumference, smoking status, and physical activity level were measured at the study's start. Fifteen years later, participants repeated those tests, reported their highest level of education, and got heart scans using computed tomography (CT) to check for coronary artery calcification.

Yan and colleagues classified education level into five categories:

  • High school not completed
  • High school graduate
  • Some college
  • College graduate
  • Postgraduate

Those categories were based on spending a typical length of time at each level.

Education and the Heart

The key question was whether participants had coronary artery calcium after 15 years in the study. Participants were 45 years old, at most, at that point, but they weren't too young to have coronary artery calcium.

Overall, about 9% of the group had coronary artery calcium, the study shows. The more years of education participants had, the less likely they were to have coronary artery calcium.

Logging lots of years in school didn't get all the credit. Adjusting for participants' systolic blood pressure, smoking, waist circumference, physical activity, and total cholesterol faded the results somewhat. Still, education remained important, Yan's team notes.

In short, high levels of education may have been an advantage, but they also seemed to be markers of other positive traits -- and vice versa for low education levels.

Of course, the study doesn't prove that high education levels guarantee good heart health, or that low education levels doom people to atherosclerosis. Heart diseaseHeart disease is a leading cause of death for U.S. adults, and a diploma doesn't change that. Consult a doctor to gauge your own heart risk.

Efforts should be made to help people with lower education levels build and maintain good heart health, starting "very early in life," write Yan and colleagues.

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