HEALTHY LIVING
09/01/2013 11:03 am ET | Updated Sep 06, 2013

What Education Has To Do With Making Lifestyle Changes In The Face Of A Medical Diagnosis

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If you were diagnosed with a chronic condition like high blood pressure or diabetes, how quick would you be to change your lifestyle to turn that condition around? A new study might provide some clues as to what kind of person is quicker to quit bad habits, like smoking, or maintain good habits, like exercising, in the face of a new medical diagnosis.

"I studied whether education affected the likelihood that people changed their behavior after they learned they had a condition that necessitated behavior modification for disease management," study researcher Rachel Margolis, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Western Ontario, explained in a statement. "I found that having more education increased the odds that a person made a healthy behavior change when faced with a new chronic health condition. This finding helps explain why there are educational differences in chronic disease management and health outcomes."

The findings, published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, are based on data from 16,600 people ages 50 to 75 who were part of the Health and Retirement Study between 1992 and 2010.

Margolis found that significantly fewer people who were college educated also smoked at some point when they were between ages 50 and 75, compared with people who dropped out of college -- 15 percent versus 41 percent. College-educated people were also more likely to maintain being physically active over the study period than those who had dropped out of college -- 14 percent versus 2 percent.

However, researchers found that in the face of a new diagnosis of a medical condition, the older a person got, the less likely he or she was to change lifestyle. For instance, having an education seemed to increase the likelihood of someone in his or her 50s quitting smoking in the face of a new medical diagnosis. But it didn't seem to have the same effect on people in their 60s and 70s.

While college-educated people in middle age were the most likely to make a lifestyle change, researchers still did find that people who dropped out of college were likely to quit disease-causing habits -- like smoking -- after receiving a medical diagnosis.

Correction: A previous version of this article implied that a team of researchers conducted the study. However, Margolis was the sole author of the journal article. The story has been corrected to reflect this change.

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