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5.11.2011 Less educated will age faster

By Pallab Ghosh

People with fewer qualifications are prone to age more quickly, a study which looked at 400 men and women says.

DNA evidence suggests cellular ageing is more advanced in adults with no qualifications compared with those who have a university degree.

Experts think education might help people lead more healthy lives.

The British Heart Foundation said the London-based study, in journal Brain, Behaviour and Immunity, reinforced the need to tackle social inequalities.

The connection between health and socioeconomic status is well established.

Those from poor backgrounds are more likely to smoke more, take less exercise and have less access to good quality healthcare, compared with more wealthy people.

But the new study suggests that education might be a more precise determinant of a person's long term health rather than their current income and social status.

The researchers suggest that education may enable people to make better decisions that affect their long term health.

They also speculate that well qualified people might be under less long-term stress, or be better able to deal with stress.

Professor Andrew Steptoe, from University College London, who led the study, said: "Education is a marker of social class that people acquire early in life, and our research suggests that it is long-term exposure to the conditions of lower status that promotes accelerated cellular ageing."

Professor Steptoe's team took blood from more than 400 men and women aged between 53 and 75.

They then measured the length of sections of DNA found at the ends of chromosomes.

These sections - called "telomeres" - cap chromosomes, protecting them from damage. Shorter telomeres are thought to be an indicator of faster ageing.

The results showed that people with lower educational attainment had shorter telomeres, indicating that they may age faster.

They also indicated that telomere length was not affected by a person's social and economic status later in life, as was previously thought.

Social factors
Professor Stephen Holgate, chairman of the Medical Research Council's Population and Systems Medicine Board, said the key implication of the study backs up the main message from long-term studies funded by the Medical Research Council for over half a century.

"Your experiences early in life can have important influences on your health," he explained.

"Whilst - as with all observational research - it is difficult to establish the root causes of the findings, this study does provide evidence that being educated to a higher level can benefit you more than in the job market alone."

Professor Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said the research reinforces the need to tackle social inequalities to combat ill-health.

He said: "It's not acceptable that where you live or how much you earn - or lesser academic attainment - should put you at greater risk of ill health."

The researchers were based primarily at University College London, but also collaborated with experts at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff and the University of California, San Francisco.