Several studies have shown that there is a relationship between education and health. A strong positive correlation between a woman’s level of education and her general health has been observed. It has been found that better education, particularly among mothers, is widely associated with better children’s health. In addition, education for women is closely associated with later age of marriage and a smaller family size.
Experiences in several countries have shown the power of education to increase children’s nutritional levels and their health status, particularly among those prey to immiseration. Education is one of the most effective investments a nation can make toward faster development and better health.
A study in rural Ghana on health-protective behaviours related to HIV/AIDS infection among adults found that individuals with higher levels of education partook in safer sexual and social practices, thus decreasing the risk of contracting the infection. More educated people are likely to live longer, to experience better health outcomes and to practice more frequently health-promoting behaviours.
As a contrast, a lack of education and poverty have a detrimental effect on health. For example, those without education and living in poverty more frequently suffer from malnutrition. As a result, they have an increased propensity to contract diseases and an increased exposure and vulnerability to environmental risks. Socio-economically disadvantaged children in families without any formal education frequently lack the stimuli critical to growth and development.
Poverty cannot be defined solely in terms of lack or low income. Little or no access to health services, lack of access to safe water and adequate nutrition, illiteracy or low educational level and a distorted perception of rights are essential effects of poverty. In addition to lack of education, poverty is one of the most influential factors for ill health, and ill health –in a vicious cycle — can lead to poverty. Education is critical in breaking this cycle.
Because they are also less informed about the benefits of healthy lifestyles, and have less access to them as well as to quality health care, those subject to immiseration are at greater risk of illness and disability. It is estimated that one third of deaths worldwide – some 18 million people a year or 50,000 a day – are due to poverty-related causes. More than 1.5 billion people in the world live in extreme poverty. Among those, 80% live in developing countries, and have little or no access to qualified health services and education, and do not participate in decisions critical to their day-to-day lives.
Those who live in extreme poverty are five times more likely to die before age five, and two and half times more likely to die between 15 and 59 than those in higher income groups. The same dramatic differences can be found with respect to maternal mortality levels and incidence of preventable diseases.
Increased income alone cannot guarantee better nutrition and health. The effect of other factors such as education, environmental hygiene and access to health care services – which cannot necessarily be bought with increased income – should also be considered. College graduates can expect to live at least five years longer than individuals who have not completed high school.
Several strategies can allow mothers and children greater access to educational opportunities as a way of improving their health status. National governments, particularly in developing countries, have to establish education – including parents’ education – as a priority, and provide necessary resources and support.
Interventions should be targeted to vulnerable groups such as those at lower income strata as well as those living in marginal areas that lack basic services. Initiatives such as Educate-Me, based in a Cairo informal housing sector on the outskirts of Giza and provides children with the knowledge and skills to achieve their full potential in life, is particularly valuable. At the international level, lending institutions have to implement debt-reduction policies for those countries willing to provide increased resources for basic education.
Although an important goal is to reduce economic inequality to improve the health status of populations, better education can provide substantial benefits in the health of populations, even before reducing the economic gap between the rich and the poor.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is a public health consultant for several international organisations. He is the author of “Health promoting schools” and “Children’s Health,” which are publications of the Pan American Health Organization.