Everyone with a public health career should understand how education level and health interrelate.

The Link Between Education and Health: What Public Health Professionals Should Know

People with a higher level of education live longer on average than those with a lower level of education.* This fact is an ongoing challenge for public health professionals and will almost certainly be a challenge for you if you want to start or advance a public health career. But before you can address this problem, you first must understand the health consequences of lower education and the different factors leading to those consequences.

Lower Education Is Tied to Multiple Health Risks

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality recently released a report detailing the alarming health consequences of a lower level of education. These consequences include the following:

  • Among 25-year-old U.S. adults, those without a high school diploma have a life expectancy 9 years shorter than college graduates.
  • During a 5-year follow-up study period, research found that college graduates with only a bachelor's degree are 26% more likely to die during that time frame than those with a professional degree. Americans with less than a high school education are almost twice as likely to die in the next 5 years compared with those with a professional degree.
  • Between 1990 and 2008, Caucasians who had accumulated fewer than 12 years of education by age 25 had a decreased life expectancy of more than 3 years for males and more than 5 years for females.
  • By 2011, the prevalence of diabetes in adults without a high school education reached 15%, compared with 7% for college graduates.

The Better Educated Have More Resources for Health

In the U.S. healthcare system, your ability to get good, consistent healthcare care depends a lot on your job and wealth. And your ability to get a good job and accumulate wealth depends a lot on your level of education. Those who have limited education often struggle to find good work, which means they’re less likely to have employer-based health coverage. Additionally, a lack of resources can create transportation problems that make it hard for people to get to the doctor for preventative care. While the poorest can qualify for Medicaid benefits, those benefits aren’t typically as comprehensive as employer-provided benefits, limiting participants to a narrow group of healthcare providers.

The Better Educated Work in Healthier Environments

Those who only graduate high school, or don’t graduate at all, typically must choose from jobs that are more physically demanding and, sometimes, more dangerous. Those who work in coal mines, manufacturing plants, warehouses, and similar workplaces are more likely to suffer a workplace injury or be exposed to hazardous materials, which in turn lowers overall health.

The Better Educated Live in Healthier Neighborhoods

The wealth–education link affects where people live as much as it affects where they work. This economic segregation leads to significant health disparities, with residents of lower-income neighborhoods suffering multiple negative health consequences.§ Those who live in lower-income neighborhoods face:

  • Higher pollution due to closer proximity to industrial areas and freeways.
  • Limited access to supermarkets with fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Oversupply of fast food, which is often cheaper but far less healthy than fresh foods.
  • Limited access to green space, decreasing the opportunity for physical activity.
  • Higher crime rate, which causes stress and increases residents’ risk of trauma.
  • Limited access to healthcare, particularly in poor, rural areas.

The Link Between Poor Education and Poor Health Can Be Self-Perpetuating

Low education, poverty, and poor health intertwine to such a degree that each factor perpetuates the other two. And the link begins as early as childhood. For instance, lower-income children tend to perform less well in school than their higher-income peers.** This increases their likelihood of dropping out of school and decreases their chances of going to college. Similarly, since poorer neighborhoods lead to poorer health, those who grow up in low-income neighborhoods are more likely to face health problems that prevent them from advancing their education or working a good job. On top of that, those with lower education have less knowledge of how to make good health choices. Because of these interconnections, it’s hard for people to pull free from the low-health/low-education bind.

You Can Help Address the Issue With a Master of Public Health Degree

If you want to help people overcome the link between lower education and poorer health, one of the best things you can do is earn a public health degree, particularly a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree. When you hold a Master of Public Health, you can be qualified for some of the most important jobs in public health, including jobs developing and administering public health programs designed to help the poorly educated achieve better health.††

You don’t have to overturn your life to complete a public health degree program. Unlike campus-based programs that require you to rearrange your life to attend classes on a campus, many of the best MPH programs now offer degrees online. These online MPH programs allow you to complete your degree from home or anywhere you have internet access. Plus, when you take advantage of online education, you can arrange your study schedule so that it fits around all your other responsibilities. This makes it possible to attend a public health graduate program while working full time.

We need solutions to the problem of low education leading to poorer health. Thanks to online learning, you can earn your MPH degree and be a part of that solution.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering a Master of Public Health degree online. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.


*P. Krueger, et al., Mortality Attributable to Low Levels of Education in the United States, Plos One, on the internet at http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0131809.

†E. Zimmerman, S. Woolf, and A. Haley, Population Health: Behavioral and Social Science Insights, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, on the internet at www.ahrq.gov/professionals/education/curriculum-tools/population-health/zimmerman.html.

‡E. Porter, A Simple Equation: More Education = More Income, New York Times, on the internet at www.nytimes.com/2014/09/11/business/economy/a-simple-equation-more-education-more-income.html?_r=0.

§Commission to Build a Healthier America, Where We Live Matters for Our Health: Neighborhoods and Health, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, on the internet as a PDF at www.commissiononhealth.org/PDF/888f4a18-eb90-45be-a2f8-159e84a55a4c/Issue%20Brief%203%20Sept%2008%20-%20Neighborhoods%20and%20Health.pdf.

**H. Ladd, Class Matters. Why Won’t We Admit It?, New York Times, on the internet at www.nytimes.com/2011/12/12/opinion/the-unaddressed-link-between-poverty-and-education.html.

††Career options may require additional experience, training, or other factors beyond the successful completion of a degree program.

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission, www.hlcommission.org.

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