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Peace of mind may close health gap for less educated

Oct. 25, 2010
By Chris Barncard/Uni­vers­ity of Wisconsin-Madison
and World Science staff

Psy­cho­log­i­cal well-be­ing may be a pow­er­ful enough force to coun­ter­act the bad long-term health ef­fects of low so­ci­o­ec­o­nom­ic sta­tus, a study in­di­cates.

In gen­er­al, lack of educa­t­ion tends to pre­dict fu­ture poor health and a rel­a­tively early death. But re­search­ers found that among peo­ple with no college edu­c­ation, pos­i­tive psy­cho­log­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics such as mean­ing­ful rela­t­ion­ships and a sense of pur­pose are linked to low­er lev­els of a mol­e­cule in the body as­so­ci­at­ed with many ill­nesses.

“If you did­n’t go that far in your educa­t­ion, but you walk around feel­ing good... you may not be more likely to suf­fer ill-health than peo­ple with a lot of school­ing,” said Car­ol Ryff, Uni­vers­ity of Wisconsin-Mad­i­son psy­chol­o­gist and co-au­thor of the stu­dy. 

The re­search­ers meas­ured lev­els of the mol­e­cule, called Interleukin-6, in par­ti­ci­pants in the Sur­vey of Midlife in the Un­ited States, a now 10-year-long study of age-related dif­fer­ences in phys­i­cal and men­tal health. The find­ings ap­pear in the cur­rent on­line edi­tion of the re­search jour­nal Health Psy­chol­o­gy.

The mol­e­cule, a pro­tein, is in­volved in in­flam­ma­to­ry pro­cesses in the body, and high lev­els “are as­so­ci­at­ed with many kinds of car­di­o­vas­cu­lar dis­ease, stroke, di­a­be­tes, met­a­bol­ic syn­drome, some can­cers and oth­er health prob­lems,” said Jen­ni­fer Mo­rozink, a psy­chol­o­gy grad­u­ate stu­dent at the school and the stu­dy’s lead au­thor.

The study found that less-educated peo­ple who scored high on meas­ures of gen­er­al hap­pi­ness or self-acceptance, or who saw their life cir­cum­stances as man­age­a­ble, showed lev­els of the in­flam­ma­to­ry pro­tein com­pa­ra­ble to those in si­m­i­larly sat­is­fied, highly-educated peers.

The re­sults re­in­force a new an­gle on elim­i­nat­ing the wide gap in over­all health be­tween the well-to-do and the so­ci­o­ec­o­nom­ic­ally dis­ad­van­taged, Ryff said. “Other re­search shows that these psy­cho­log­i­cal fac­tors re­spond well to in­ter­ven­tion,” she ex­plained. “Ther­a­pies ex­ist that give peo­ple the tools to keep all these psy­cho­log­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics work­ing in their fa­vor. They’ve been shown to keep peo­ple from fall­ing back in­to de­pres­sion and anx­i­e­ty, which we know means bad things for their health.”

“At­ten­tive par­ents, strong role mod­els and feel­ing en­gaged in and im­por­tant to their com­mun­ity could con­trib­ute a great deal to these psy­cho­log­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics,” she added.


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Psychological well-being may be powerful enough to counteract the negative long-term health effects of low socioeconomic status, a study indicates. In general, lack of education tends to predict future poor health and a relatively early death. But among people whose formal education ended with a high school diploma or less, researchers found that positive psychological characteristics such as meaningful relationships and a sense of purpose are linked to lower levels of a molecule in the body associated with many illnesses. “If you didn’t go that far in your education, but you walk around feeling good psychological stuff, you may not be more likely to suffer ill-health than people with a lot of schooling,” said Carol Ryff, University of Wisconsin-Madison psychologist and co-author of the study. The researchers measured levels of the molecule, called Interleukin-6, in participants in the Survey of Midlife in the United States, a now 10-year-long study of age-related differences in physical and mental health. The findings appear in the current online edition of the journal Health Psychology. The molecule, a protein, is involved in inflammatory processes in the body, and high levels “are associated with many kinds of cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, some cancers and other health problems,” said Jennifer Morozink, a psychology graduate student at the school and the study’s lead author. “These positive psychological characteristics all moderate the level of IL-6 for people without much education.” The study found that less-educated people who scored high on measures of general happiness or self-acceptance, or who felt that their circumstances were manageable, showed levels of the inflammatory protein comparable to similarly satisfied, but highly-educated peers. The results are important because they reinforce a new angle on eliminating the wide gap in overall health between the well-to-do and the socioeconomically disadvantaged, Ryff said. “Other research shows that these psychological factors respond well to intervention,” she explained. “Therapies exist that give people the tools to keep all these psychological characteristics working in their favor. They’ve been shown to keep people from falling back into depression and anxiety, which we know means bad things for their health.” “Attentive parents, strong role models and feeling engaged in and important to their community could contribute a great deal to these psychological characteristics,” she added.