Study: College-educated, middle-aged Americans most likely to pursue healthier behaviors

WASHINGTON — Better-educated middle-aged Americans are less likely to smoke and more apt to be physically active than their less-educated peers. They also are more inclined to make healthy changes and adhere to them, according to a new study in the September issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

"This study documents that there are very large differences by education in smoking and physical activity trajectories in middle age, even though many health habits are already set by this stage of the life course," stated study author Rachel Margolis, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Western Ontario. "Health behavior changes are surprisingly common between ages 50 years and 75 years, and the fact that better-educated middle-aged people are more likely to stop smoking, start physical activity and maintain both of these behaviors over time has important health ramifications."

Margolis found that 15% of college-educated respondents smoked at some point between ages 50 years and 75 years, compared with 41% of college dropouts. There also were large differences by education in physical activity over the study period. For example, 14% of college-educated respondents were physically active at all interviews during the study period, compared with 2% of those with less than a high school education. 

Margolis also discovered that one's level of education became decreasingly important as a moderator of healthy behavior changes upon diagnosis as age increased. Having more education increased the odds of smoking cessation among people in their 50s who were diagnosed with a new condition, but not those in their 60s or early 70s.

"Well-educated smokers in their 60s and early 70s are a small and select group," Margolis said. "They may be the most addicted or the most stubborn."

Another possible explanation for why well-educated smokers in their 50s were more likely to quit than those in their 60s and early 70s is that the longer people expect to live when they get sick, the more likely they are to make a healthy behavior change, Margolis said.

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