Sometimes it seems that we are always hanging on for the next big breakthrough in health. What will it be – a cure for cancer, diabetes or schizophrenia?

The funny thing is we already have the big breakthrough; it’s been shown to be associated with so many health benefits in so many studies.

The problem is that it doesn’t fit with our idea of what a breakthrough should be – some sort of scientific discovery, preferably with a technological application, backed up by a healthy bottom line.

How might things be different if we stopped to consider education as the big breakthrough for improving health?

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I’ve been pondering this after skimming a new study by Swedish researchers, titled “Marital partner and mortality: the effects of the social positions of both spouses”,  just published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health (you can get the abstract for free via Google, but have to pay for the full article)

Men were more likely to live longer if their spouse was well educated. Indeed, the woman’s  education was more important for a man’s chances of a long life than his own educational attainment. (I’m not sure what this might mean for same sex couples)

The authors suggest that education predicts occupation, which predicts class and social status as well as income. It may also influence selection of partner and, importantly, lifestyle.

I’m sure the relationship between good health and education is complex, with the causal arrow pointing in both directions, so maybe my breakthrough analogy is a tad simplistic.

But what would it mean if we decided that education was the big breakthrough in health and the key to both improving population health and reducing the health gap between the rich and poor?

How might we do things differently?

Pay teachers as much as doctors? Or do other things to make sure the profession attracted and retained the best teachers?

Ensure that schools are such enjoyable and engaging places that kids want to be there and stay there as long as possible?

Make higher education freely available or perhaps even offer financial incentives – pay people to get a degree? Especially if they’re from disadvantaged areas or groups?

Ensure that every education policy or initiative has a health impact assessment?

What else?

Surely it’s worth looking beyond the typical response to these sort of findings – of advising men to marry well educated women if they want a long life (and for women to get educated for the sake of their health as well as their family’s.)

If anyone wants a copy of the article, let me know…