Primal Numbers – Good Grades, Good Health?

Studying can be hard on your health. Besides the pressure to get good grades, there are stiff necks from poring over textbooks and bleary eyes from cramming for exams. Still, those are nothing compared to the perils of not studying. According to new research, a lack of education might be just as deadly as smoking. But a closer look reveals that yesterday’s data might not hold true for tomorrow.

The news comes from a team of researchers at the University of Colorado Denver. As Science Alert reports, they analyzed data from the past 90 years, looking at things like diet, smoking, and income in relation to people’s level of education and death rates. They found that “145,000 deaths in the US could have been prevented in 2010 if adults who didn’t finish high school had graduated.” College dropouts fared nearly as bad, with the study estimating that another 110,000 deaths “could have been prevented if [they] had finished their degrees.”

The results are sobering though not surprising. After all, higher education brings better literacy in all kinds of things, like deciphering contracts and bank statements or reading prescription handouts.

Besides that, power brings access to the best resources?and we live in a world where money equals power. Whether you’re the top surgeon or the highest paid lawyer on the block, a good education supports good health in countless ways, including the best food, the best shelter, and the best medical care.

But here’s the catch: today’s job market is different than it was in 1925 or 1955. Those 90 years of data might not reflect the same links between education and mortality in the modern, global economy.

For instance, a degree or diploma often played a huge part in a successful career even a few decades ago. But many college and university grads today struggle to find work in their fields. Some high-tech jobs don’t even require higher education. Take the example of STEM degrees in this Globe and Mail article.

STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) would seem to be a field that promises good jobs for grads. Especially the technology sector. Yet as the article notes, “only 25 per cent of the 15 million Americans who have a STEM degree work in a STEM job.” Even more telling, of all the millions of people who do have jobs in STEM fields, less than half of them have a degree in those fields.

In Canada, recent stats show that over qualification is a widespread problem. As the Calgary Herald reports, “nearly 40 per cent of university educated Canadians are working in jobs that don’t require a university degree.” And if you’re a university grad aged 25 to 34, the news is even more interesting. Eighteen per cent of you are “working in jobs that require a high school diploma or less.”

The point is, higher education today may not be as closely linked to lower mortality as it once was. Especially in a job market where, as the CBC points out, temporary, contract, and part-time work is on the rise and “self-employed workers increased almost 45 per cent between 1989 and 2007.”

Even stable, well-paid government jobs are a vanishing breed, with increasing numbers of public sector roles being filled by temp agencies. It’s not a stretch to imagine someone with a master’s degree being hired on contract without benefits, a pension, or a guarantee that his contract will be renewed in six months.

Does all this mean that a good education is a bad idea? Not even close. Education still brings all the benefits of greater literacy, of knowing how to think critically, of the skills that you’ll need if you decide to start your own business empire.

But before you sign on for that PhD in hopes of better health, just remember that even Einstein got an infection from his parrot.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.

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