ScienceForWomen.org is has two goals which we describe here. The second goal is to promote the education of women in sciences and reinforce young women who have made an investment in their education.
In a past post, I wrote about telomeres. Telomeres are the caps on our chromosomes, which hold all of our DNA. As we age, telomeres shorten, creating vulnerability to disease and contributing to mortality. As a result, there has been a monsoon of research in the past decade examining the lifestyle and psychological factors that predict telomere length. More recently, I came across an article that underscores our mission to reward those who have invested in their education.
One of my scientific heroes, Dr. Andrew Steptoe, and his colleagues asked the question:
What is a better predictor of telomere length later in life: how much money you have or how much education you completed?
Study after study after study shows that having low socioeconomic status predicts earlier mortality and greater risk for disease. In fact, some past studies have shown that low SES predicts shortening telomeres which protect the DNA of your cells. Shortening telomeres are a popular marker of biological aging. Yet, socioeconomic status is comprised of many different factors, including household income, occupation, and education. To answer their research question, the team used data from a large study that followed over 10,000 civil servants living in London between 1985-1988 who were recruited for a longitudinal study on cardiovascular disease risk. Most importantly, recruitment for the study specifically aimed to have participants ranging on socioeconomic background. Among these thousands of individuals, 506 (277 men, 229 women) aged 62.77 years (range 53–76 years) came to a laboratory between 2006-2008 to provide a blood sample and complete more measures of their current income and occupation.
In this sample, 180 (35.6%) participants had a college/university degree, 153 (30.2%) had obtained "A levels" or an advanced qualification for high school, 132 (26.1%) had obtained "O levels" or a basic qualification in high school, and 41 (8.1%) had no educational qualifications.
They then looked the association between different education levels and telomere length, and found that as educational attainment increased, so did telomere length. That may not be surprising, but they also found this association after controlling for: age, sex, current occupation, blood pressure, cholesterol, smoking, BMI, physical activity, and current household income. So that means that while it is possible that low educational achievement may contribute negatively to health through lower lifelong income, higher likelihood of smoking, obesity, smoking, and so on, there is still a significant contribution made by educational achievement to the health of your cells, above and beyond those factors. Even more remarkable was that the association was a gradient, such that there were gains in telomere length with each additional level of educational.
What might this mean? The authors make two points that warrant further research and consideration. First, it is possible that education sets an individual on a health-promoting trajectory that is more important to late-life health than wealth or occupation when a person is older. It is also possible that education allows an individual to more effectively problem solve around health-related issues. The measures of educational attainment in this study are fairly specific to the UK, whereas educational levels in the United States would likely group the "O"s and "A"s together. Not knowing much about the UK system, I expect that the UK high school qualifications are more highly correlated with IQ than anything else. So, perhaps individuals with higher educational qualifications, have higher IQs, which cause them to seek out and respond to health recommendations and problems differently, resulting in cumulative benefit or damage to the body.
The take home message here is that investing in a young adult's education will do more for them than increase their potential income, it has the potential to improve their health, reduce their risk for disease, and lengthen their life. Keep in mind that these findings are just correlational, meaning there is no way of knowing whether higher education caused longer telomere lengths for the people in this study. These data are also limited in that they excluded people with heart and inflammatory diseases. These limitations aside, I still can't think of a good reason not to invest in education.
For more articles on telomeres click here.
Steptoe, A., Hamer, M., Butcher, L., Lin, J., Brydon, L., Kivimäki, M., ... & Erusalimsky, J. D. (2011). Educational attainment but not measures of current socioeconomic circumstances are associated with leukocyte telomere length in healthy older men and women. Brain, behavior, and immunity, 25(7), 1292-1298.