Better health in midlife might be a matter of degrees. According to a study led by Dr. Katrina Walsemann of the University of South Carolina's Arnold School of Public Health, attaining at least a bachelor's degree after 25 years of age is associated with better midlife health.
The results appear in the American Journal of Public Health. The study examined whether attaining a higher educational degree after 25 years of age was associated with fewer depressive symptoms and better self-rated health than not attaining a higher educational degree.
The researchers analyzed data from 7,179 people who were part of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979, a nationally representative sample of individuals who were 14 to 21 years old in 1979.
Researchers found that among respondents with no degree, a high school diploma, or a post-high school certificate at age 25, attaining at least a bachelor's degree by midlife was associated with fewer depressive symptoms and better self-rated health at midlife when compared with respondents who did not attain a higher degree by midlife, said Walsemann, an assistant professor in the Arnold School's Department of Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior.
People who had an associate's degree by age 25, and who later earned a bachelor's degree or higher, also reported better health at midlife.
"About 38 percent of people pursuing college degrees are 25 years old or older," Walsemann said. "A significant percentage of U.S. individuals attain their highest degree after their mid-20s. The study has important implications for education and public health and how we think about policies to encourage people to pursue college degrees."
Many people associate higher education with traditional students, who enter college immediately after their senior year of high school. But because of the economic downturn in recent years, "more people are coming back later in life to pursue a college degree to enhance their opportunities for employment or to change career fields," Walsemann said. "A growing percentage of students aren't on a traditional path.
"Our study provides preliminary evidence that the timing of education is associated with health and advances current research on the importance of attaining at least a bachelor's degree after the mid-20s," Walsemann said.
Future studies are needed to identify the extent to which the timing of educational attainment matters for population health and the mechanisms by which education in later life benefits health, she said.
Co-authors on the study were Dr. Bethany A. Bell of USC's College of Education and Dr. Robert A. Hummer of the University of Texas at Austin.
- Katrina M. Walsemann, Bethany A. Bell, Robert A. Hummer. Effects of Timing and Level of Degree Attained on Depressive Symptoms and Self-Rated Health at Midlife. American Journal of Public Health, 2012; 102 (3): 557 DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2011.300216
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