Reading, writing, and living well

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By Janet Murray and Dr. Jock Murray

For The Advocate

Our parents used to say, “Get a good education and you’ll get a good job.” Current parents should say, “Get a good education and you will be healthier, happier, and live longer.”

In an earlier column we wrote about the social determinants of health and their importance in the life of individuals, communities and the greater world. One of the determinants for which there is very compelling evidence is education. We also wrote about Thomas McCulloch who had clear views on the importance of education; Arthur Fitzpatrick, a Pictou Academy graduate who believed in the importance of educating new immigrants to Canada; and Sir William Dawson who was interested in school curriculum, teacher training, education of women and university standards. The importance of education in the lives of individuals, families and communities has been a strong belief in Pictou County ever since the first arrival of the Scots.

Our health is not dependent on the health care system so much as it is dependent on us and the decisions we make. We can’t avoid all challenges to our health in life, but many are avoidable if we make healthy choices. An important choice is to improve our educational level, both formal and informal, and having an attitude of pursuing lifelong learning.

There is overwhelming evidence that educational level is a strong predictor of better health outcomes, better quality of life and longer length of life. A better education is also associated with lower morbidity from other illnesses, particularly cardiac diseases, and even cancer. The major effects on health outcomes of educational level is increased by its enhancement of other positive social determinants of health such as good health choices and behaviors, improved employment opportunities, greater opportunities in life, and higher income.

Those with higher education levels generally are more likely to make better informed health decisions for themselves and for their families. Higher education also provides better employment opportunities, and higher income, and both of these are positive health determinants.

Often our parents did not attend university, and raised their families through difficult times, but they did well in life and encouraged education for all their children. It was not unusual to succeed in life with high school level education in the 1920’s when our parents were entering the workforce, but the requirements have been getting higher as each decade goes by. We now live in a knowledge-based world and in that world a higher education is almost a requirement. Because Canada has a high rate of post-graduate training and education, those who drop out of school will have a difficult time competing. And it is becoming clear that in the post-pandemic world, commerce will re-figure to proceed with fewer people, and with people with higher qualifications.

Young people may be impressed by the few media billionaires who didn’t complete college, but those innovators are unlikely to hire anyone who doesn’t have a university degree and additional educational background to innovate in the future world.

If young people don’t acquire adequate education they will be in a category with poorer health outcomes. Of Canadians in the age group 25-64 with some education beyond high school, 70 per cent reported being in excellent or very good health compared to 43 per cent of those without a high school diploma. Studies have also shown that health outcomes increase as the level of education increases.

The focus in the health care system had always been on the relationship of disease and health, morbidity and mortality, but the focus has changed to the broader influences on health outcomes. Canada was a leader in this field with the Lalonde Report of 1974 which emphasized the fields of interest in causing illness and a strategy for health promotion. Another influential study was the Whitehall research in London in 1985, looking at the health of various levels of employment in the civil service from the lowest levels of messengers, cleaners, doormen, to the highest level of administrators. The long term study evaluated over 20,000 employees. The results showed a marked difference in health outcomes, with those in the lowest levels and also with the lowest education, having higher rates of smoking, obesity, illnesses, higher blood pressure, less leisure time, and much higher rates of cardiac diseases and three times greater mortality. Employment level is a marker for level of education. The study is now in its fourteenth phase. The Whitehall study, the results of which have been duplicated in other countries, was initiated by Sir Michael Marmot, who then led the World Health Organization (WHO) initiative on the Social Determinants of Health. Both of these demonstrated the link between the health determinants — education and literacy, employment, income, social supports and coping skills, healthy behaviors and access to health care.

We also want healthy communities. If we want to improve the health of a community, we need to improve the level of education, but even more importantly, improve the level of education of women. On a personal note, we like to support worthy causes, but some years ago decided to concentrate on what we felt was a very important area, and established a number of bursaries to help in the education of women at our alma maters and the Coady Institute. We feel strongly that an educated woman influences her family and following generations and helps a community to become a healthier place for all.

We also believe that education is primarily the responsibility of parents, using provincial official education as a tool. Children should learn skills as well as the school curriculum, and parents are best to teach and encourage those skills — cook a healthy meal, exercise regularly, learn to ride a bike, make use of the library and the local gym, learn to play an instrument, join a choir, volunteer. We hope a well-educated child will grow up to be a well-educated adult who then will have a long, healthy and happy life in a healthy community.

Dr. T. Jock Murray is a graduate of Pictou Academy and former Dean of Medicine at Dalhousie University. Janet Murray is a graduate of Mount Saint Vincent, majoring in philosophy and a diploma in journalism. She is the former Chair of the Board of Governors of Mount Saint Vincent University.