Higher education and upward mobility are often touted as a ticket to better health. Yet a new study suggests that the positive health effects of a good education are felt less by blacks than by whites.
Consider this scenario: Four adults are sitting in a doctor’s office. Two are black and two are white. One black adult and one white adult have high school diplomas; the other two have college degrees.
You might reasonably expect that the two college graduates would be healthier than the ones who finished only high school, owing to the improved access to health insurance, fresh foods, and safe housing that higher education often brings. But the study shows that the health benefits of educational attainment for African Americans may in fact be offset by racial discrimination and other associated stresses.
Conducted over the course of 15 years, the data set—part of an ongoing longitudinal study—assessed subjects at age 30, and then again at age 45, for levels of inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation has been shown to contribute to a greater incidence of diabetes and heart disease.
One of the study’s authors, Thomas Fuller-Rowell, PhD, puts it this way: “Among whites, the more educated you are, the better off you are in terms of inflammation across adulthood. Among African Americans, we found no health benefit to being more educated.”
Fuller-Rowell is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholar whose research examines how differences in race and social class affect health. “In order to solve the larger health disparities issue, we need to understand what it is about educational attainment that is more stressful for African Americans,” he explains.
As the study points out, stress is a prime suspect when it comes to poor immune function, slow healing, and infections. Long-term stress can cause chronic inflammation, which in turn contributes to a greater incidence of diabetes and heart disease.
“Upward mobility and education are put forward as the best way to improve health disparities, but these findings suggest that eliminating educational disparities will not be enough,” says Fuller-Rowell. “We have to address the differential stresses of getting a higher education along with issues relating to white-dominated workplaces.”
One of the study’s recommendations is to increase programs that not only encourage upward mobility among underrepresented groups, but also “acknowledge and seek to mitigate the challenges of navigating educational and workplace contexts that are often racially and culturally insensitive. “
According to Fuller-Rowell, “We need institutional and governmental programs that are designed to remedy group disparities so that we can address the legacy of racial inequity in the United States.” The study, he notes, defines rather than explains the problem.
“We’re now working on research that gets to the explanation,” he says.