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Dear Healthy Men: What’s the connection between education and health and how men are affected?

A: Great question. In broad terms, the more education someone has, the longer and healthier his or her life will be. The connection between the two is fairly intuitive, but it takes a few steps to get there. Here’s how it works:

The first two steps have to do with employment (or unemployment) and income. Those without a high school diploma are much more likely to be unemployed or underemployed—and earn a lot less—than those who’ve taken some college classes or received an undergraduate or graduate degree.

While the overall unemployment rate in the US is about 4%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, those with less than a high school diploma, have a 6.5% unemployment rate and earn an average of $520 per week. High school grads have a 4.6% unemployment rate and earn $712/week. Having some college under your belt lowers the unemployment rate to 4% and increases salary to $774/week; A bachelor’s degree takes unemployment down to 2.5% and boosts salaries to $1173/week; and a master’s degree drops the unemployment rate to 1.5% and raises the average weekly salary to $1836.

In addition to the differences in employment and earnings, those with less education are more likely to smoke, have an unhealthy diet, and not get enough exercise, according to researchers Anna Zajacova and Elizabeth M. Lawrence. And because they’re more likely to be employed, people with more education are typically more likely to have health insurance, which increases the chances that they’ll see a healthcare provider on a regular basis. More educated people also tend to have larger social networks, which provide resources that can help people deal with health crises.

People with more education (and income) are more likely to learn about their health and the steps they need to take to live healthier lives. They also tend to live in healthier neighborhoods where they’re likely to have easier access to resources that facilitate good health, such as parks, grocery stores, health clubs, hospitals, and medical providers. Less healthy neighborhoods also tend to suffer from higher crime rates, which increases stress levels and decreases overall quality of life for residents.

So what does all this have to do with men’s health? Plenty. Boys and men are not getting the same level of education as girls and women. And the differences start very early. For example, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), for every 100 girls who repeat kindergarten 145 boys do; boys are more than 2.5 times as likely as girls to be suspended or expelled from public elementary and secondary schools. And according to the College Board, for every 100 high school girls who take the SAT test, 89 boys take the test; for every 100 college-bound high school senior girls who take AP/Honors courses in math or science, there are only about 80 boys; and girls are about 65% more likely to take AP/Honors courses in art, music, foreign language, and English.

How does all this play out? Well, since the late 1970s, women have outnumbered men in degree-granting post-high-school institutions. Today, about 37% of young women ages 18-24 are enrolled in some kind of college program vs 33% of young men the same age. Overall, women comprise more than 56% of college students. Put a little differently, over 2.2 million fewer men than women are enrolled in college.

Going a step further, according to NCES, this year, women will earn 61.3% of Associates degrees, 57% of bachelors, 58% of masters, and 53% of doctorates. All told, 661,000 more women will earn degrees this year alone. It’s important to note that all of the numbers I’ve cited here include all races. The male:female disparities are far worse among African Americans and Latinx.

As we’ve discussed in previous columns, men’s health is already a significant public health crisis. And with the education gap between women and men widening, we can expect that crisis—as measured in terms of men’s shorter, less-healthy lives—to get even worse.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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