Jan 29, 2010

Peace of mind may close health gap for less educated

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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