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Better education = better heart health

Scott Lear, SFU Health Sciences professor
“In health research, you need to have different views and expertise to understand problems and find answers that really work.”

We know education is good for the mind. Turns out, it’s also good for the heart.

According to a sweeping global study conducted by SFU Health Sciences professor Scott Lear, among other investigators, there is a direct relationship between socioeconomic status (education, household wealth) and a person’s susceptibility to cardiovascular disease and mortality. 

“Education is a modifiable risk factor for heart disease and more important than wealth,” says Lear, who also holds the Pfizer/Heart & Stroke Foundation Chair in Cardiovascular Prevention Research and is the principal investigator of the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study site in Vancouver.

“If you give people money, it doesn’t instantly make them healthy. But if we strive to better educate people, it will result in improved health since there is a more direct link between education and health outcomes.”

The study revealed that the higher the education level, the less chance people had of getting heart disease. Conversely people who had less than a high school education had a higher chance of getting heart disease and experiencing early death.

Lear says this could be due, in part, to less access to care for those with a lower education.

PURE is the largest global study focused on environmental, societal and biological influences on obesity and chronic health conditions like heart disease. Conducted over a period of more than 15 years in 20+ countries, it is based on data collected from over 225,000 participants in countries as diverse as Tanzania, India, Brazil, Sweden and Canada.

Lear explains that education levels, which are similar around the world (ie. primary; secondary; trade school, college or university), can be used as a uniform measure in a way that wealth cannot.

“How do you standardize wealth for someone in India versus Canada? It’s hard to assess,” he says. 

Lear would like to see educators and public health officials partner to design interventions to keep people in school as long as possible, particularly in vulnerable populations. He also believes education should be part of an individual’s health assessment. 

“We need to look at education in the same way we look at blood pressure or cholesterol. That’s quite new for people to see the benefit of education in this way.”

The Chair in Cardiovascular Prevention Research is funded by St. Paul’s Foundation, Pfizer Canada, Heart and Stroke Foundation of BC and Yukon, and the Faculty of Health Sciences at SFU. Lear’s research activities—part of SFU’s commitment to furthering social justice and health equity for all—are also supported by the Canadian Institute of Health Research and the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, among other organizations.