Study links lower education levels to higher obesity rates

Obese children are more likely to live in homes where the heads of the households lack high school diplomas.

By — Posted May 25, 2012

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Possessing a high school diploma and a college degree may be a major factor in having a family with smaller waistlines and longer lives, according to a new federal report on the nation’s health.

Researchers found that lower education levels in a household generally translated into higher obesity rates. Less education also impacted other health markers. Life expectancy was lower for 25-year-olds without high school diplomas, and smokers were more prevalent among adults younger than 65 who didn’t have some form of higher education. The report is issued annually by the National Center for Health Statistics, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

From 2007 to 2010, lower obesity rates for children 2 to 19 could be correlated with higher levels of education for the heads of their households. In instances where the head of the household had less than a high school education, 24% of boys and 22% of girls were obese. Obesity levels were significantly lower — 11% of boys and 7% of girls — in instances where the head of the household had a bachelor’s degree or higher education.

In a related finding, women 25 and older who had less than a bachelor’s degree also were more likely to be obese (39% to 43%) than those with higher education (25%). Obesity among men didn’t vary consistently according to education.

The lack of education in and of itself doesn’t necessarily contribute to obesity, said Jo Marie Reilly, MD, a family physician and associate professor at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California. “It’s all those things that education allows you to have” in the form of resources, from healthier foods to neighborhoods that have parks and safe areas to exercise, she said. Better employment opportunities also give people money to access health care, pursue nutrition education and pay for gym memberships.

As a physician, “it’s very challenging to work with this patient population,” Dr. Reilly said of people with more limited means. She said she tries to help her patients who have a lower socioeconomic status to obtain access to insurance and better health care resources.

Providing local memberships to YMCAs for lower-income families can help, she said. “We as physicians can go into schools and do pro bono work,” such as providing lectures on healthy eating. Starting up farmers markets and public gardens in inner-city spaces is another way for these populations to obtain access to healthier food, she said.

Obesity rates for children and adults in general have increased notably during the past few decades, according to the CDC health survey. From 1988-94 through 2007-10, the percentage of adults 20 and older with a body mass index of 30 to 34.9 — or “grade 1” obesity — increased from 14% to 20%. Those with BMIs of 40 or higher doubled from 3% to 6% during this period.

The American Medical Association has many policies and model bills that address obesity. AMA policy on childhood obesity supports evidence-based nutrition standards for all food served and sold in K-12 schools, and the provision of vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, vegetarian foods and healthy beverages in school lunch programs.

The findings were released about the time the Dept. of Health and Human Services launched a new Web-based tool, the Health System Measurement Project, to make it easier for physicians, policymakers and the public to monitor how the nation’s health care system is performing.

The national health statistics survey is available online (link). The new HHS tracking tool also is available online (link).

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