By Dr. Steven N. Austad
Am I the only one who feels bombarded by unwanted health advice?
You can’t open a newspaper (remember those?), a magazine, the internet, or turn on the television without stumbling across someone dispensing tips for living a longer, healthier life. It could be eating more blueberries, consuming massive amounts of antioxidant vitamins, devouring less red meat, drinking more red wine, sleeping more or sleeping less, activating your hormones, or maybe just balancing them (whatever that means).
For someone like myself who studies the biology of aging and works daily to discover ways to keep us healthy longer, it is painful to hear so much worthless advice all in the service of making someone a buck from our insecurities about aging and ill health. Even Hollywood celebrities without a shred of scientific knowledge or medical training feel free to get in on the act. Yes, I’m looking at you, Gwenyth Paltrow.
I usually don’t offer health advice myself, but this one time I will make an exception. This advice is specifically for young people. It is scientifically validated in dozens of studies and accepted by all the professional researchers in the field. Here it is: Get a college education.
Yes, getting a college education is a miracle drug for health and longevity. In study after study, those with a college degree live 8-10 years longer than those who don’t complete high school and 4-5 years longer than those who do complete high school but go no farther. Beyond that, the longevity of people with a college degree is continuing to increase, whereas the longevity of people with just a high school diploma has been relatively level, and for those without a high school diploma is actually declining.
The funny thing about this unexpected benefit of a college education is that we don’t really understand what causes it. You might expect that more education would lead to better health habits. That is true. College educated people are far less likely to smoke or be obese than the less well-educated, for instance. However, that only explains a fraction of the longer life. You might expect that more education would lead to greater wealth, hence better access to medical care. That is also true, but again it also only explains part of the longevity difference. In the United Kingdom, where everyone has the same access to medical care, you still find the college health bonus. Education also protects against Alzheimer’s disease. We don’t really understand that either.
One attractive, though unproven, idea is that college gives us the lifelong gift of valuing learning. Learning new things keeps us mentally active, keeps us looking into the future. It may be a cliché that a healthy attitude promotes actual health, but clichés often embody truth. Whatever the reason, the fact remains. If you want a long and healthy life, make sure that you get that college degree.
Here in the College of Arts and Sciences, my colleagues and I are working to advance our research, but most importantly, we’re working to educate the next generation of students. Doing so guarantees their development as informed global citizens and prepares them for their future professions—but it also just might ensure that they live a longer, healthier life.
Dr. Steven N. Austad is chair of the Department of Biology and the director of the UAB Nathan Shock Center of Excellence in the Basic Biology of Aging.