Education and Literacy

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

“An additional four years of education lowers five-year mortality by 1.8 percentage points; it also reduces the risk of heart disease by 2.16 percentage points, and the risk of diabetes by 1.3 percentage points” (Cutler & Lleras-Muney, 2006).

Education has a strong positive relationship with health status. Its effect is facilitated through several different pathways. Let’s explore them.

A basic education develops individuals’ skills in crucial areas such math, reasoning, problem solving, and literacy. These abilities impact income potential and job security, which in turn are components of socioeconomic status – another determinant of health. These skills are also important for people to feel like they have a sense of control over their lives, so that they can be self-determining. The less control people have over their circumstances, the more their health suffers.

More directly, literacy allows people to find and understand information related to their health. On the most obvious level, it ensures that patients are able to read and follow instructions on a prescription. However, people with higher education may also tend to engage in more health-promoting behaviours, such as avoiding smoking, being physically active, and eating a healthy diet. Research work on the concept of “health literacy” tries to elicit this empowerment towards health status (Nutbeam, 2000).

In developing countries, it is said that if you ‘educate a girl, you educate an entire family.’ This is because in these situations, women manage domestic household affairs and make decisions that can impact the health of the entire family. For example, educating women about the use of oral rehydration therapy in Bangladesh has drastically reduced infant mortality in that country (Chowdhury, Karim, Sarkar, Cash, & Bhuiya, 1997). Educating girls in math can later help women balance a household budget. Hygiene practices, such as hand washing before preparing or eating food, can also be taught in school.

Canada has a strong education system, with secondary school students consistently placing in the top 10 countries globally for skills such as math, reading, and science (OECD, 2012). 86.7% of Canadians aged 25-29 graduated high school, and 62.6% of those aged 25-54 have a university degree (CANSIM, 2006). The difference literacy and higher education can make is huge. 7.8% of high school graduates are unemployed, while only 4.4% of those with a university education are out of work (CANSIM, 2014). 19% of Canadians with less than a high school education rank their health as ‘excellent,’ compared to 30% of university graduates (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2013). It is clear that investing in education is an important part of improving health status across the globe.



Chowdhury, A.M., Karim, F., Sarkar, S.K., Cash, R.A., & Bhuiya, A. (1997). The status of ORT in Bangladesh: how widely is it used? Health Policy and Planning, 12(1), 58-66.

Cutler, D.M., & Lleras-Muney, A. (2006). Education and health: evaluating theories and evidence. National Bureau of Economic Research, working paper 12532. doi: 10.3386/w12352

Nutbeam, D. (2000). Health literacy as a public health goal: a challenge for contemporary health education and communication strategies into the 21st century. Health Promotion International, 15(3), 259-267. doi: 10.1093/heapro/15.3.259

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (2012). Education GPS:   Canada. Retrieved from

Public Health Agency of Canada. (2013). What makes Canadians healthy or  unhealthy? Retrieved from

Statistics Canada. (2006). Census indicator profile, Canada, provinces, territories,  health regions (2011 boundaries) and peer groups. (CANSIM table 109-0300). Retrieved June 6 from            =eng&retrLang=eng&id=1090300&paSer=&pattern=&stByVal=          1&p1=1&p2=-1&tabMode=dataTable&csid=

Statistics Canada. (2014). Labour force survey estimates (LFS), by educational  attainment, sex and age group, unadjusted for seasonality. (CANSIM table 282-0003). pattern=unemployment+and+educational+attainment&tabMode=     dataTable&srchLan=-1&p1=1&p2=-1

Figure 1. Writing exams. [Photograph], by ccarlstead, 2007. Retrieved from

The following two tabs change content below.

Nicole Haywood

Associate editor for the IJHS. Bachelor of Health Sciences, class of 2014, University of Ottawa.

Commentez / Comment: