For the first time in history, estimates of the overweight people in the world rival estimates of those malnourished. The World Health Organization (WHO, 2002) ranked obesity among the top 10 risks to human health worldwide. In the early 1960s, nearly half of the Americans were overweight and 13% were obese. Today some 64% of U.S. adults are overweight and 30.5% are obese. Even more alarming, twice as many U.S. children are overweight than were twenty years ago, a 66% increase. Non-communicable diseases impose a heavy economic burden on already strained health systems. Health is a key determinant of development and a precursor of economic growth (WHO, 2003). Previous research suggests that states with higher levels of educational attainment tend to be better off on measures of economic welfare (Post Secondary Opportunity, 2002). In the U.S. adults with less than a high school education have higher prevalence of both obesity (27.4%) and diabetes (13%), while adults with a college degree had prevalence of obesity of (15.7%) and diabetes (5.5%) respectively (CDC, 2002). This study explores the interrelationships among obesity prevalence, educational attainment, and state economic welfare. It is hypothesized that as a state’s educational attainment rises, their corresponding obesity prevalence goes down.
This secondary analysis examines U.S. data from the Center for Disease Control, U.S. Census, and The Bureau of Economic Analysis for the year 2001. Fifty – one states (including D.C) were correlated with their obesity prevalence and high school graduation rates, bachelor’s degree recipients or more, per capita personal income, poverty rate, median household income, unemployment rate, and employed/population ratio.
The growing body of literature on the globesity epidemic (world corpulence) suggests that individuals are not to blame, but globalization and development, with poverty as an exacerbating factor. Some of the problem in the U.S. and abroad might be partially economic, with mass-marketed foods being cheaper, especially in urban areas, while fresh foods are becoming more expensive. In poorer countries people tend to get fatter as their incomes rise, while in developed and transitional economies higher income correlates with more slender bodies. Cultural factors might also be important in that many minority and lower income groups associate fatness with prosperity, a perception not shared with groups having higher living standards and education.
Results show that states with a higher percent of the population 25 or older having at least a high school diploma are negatively correlated with Obesity Prevalence (r = -.45, p<.001). More striking were the percent of the population 25 or older having a bachelor’s degree and the corresponding negative correlation with obesity prevalence (r = -.55, p<.001). Other correlations with obesity prevalence are: median household income (r = -.46, p<. 001), per capita personal income (r = -.47, p<. 001), poverty rate (r = .38, p<. 01), unemployment rate (r = .35, p<. 05) and employment/population ratio (-.37, p<. 01). Findings seem to suggest that not only does obtaining bachelor’s degree provide for a better economic life style, but possibly a slimmer healthier one as well. If states are to improve minimum living conditions and health (as related to obesity) of their population, they ought to focus on high school graduation and increase the number of adults in their state who are at least high school graduates. However an “aiming high” state strategy would improve living standards well beyond minimum by increasing the proportion of the state adult population with at least a bachelor’s degree. The indirect affect might be to lower state obesity prevalence as more of a state’s population becomes better educated.
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Sivula, M. (2004, June). Obesity, educational attainment, and state economic welfare. Paper accepted for Educational Innovation in Business and Economics (EdiNeb) Conference, Van der Valk Hotel, Maastricht, the Netherlands.
Sivula, Martin W. Ph.D., "Obesity, Educational Attainment, and State Economic Welfare" (2004). Higher Education. 11.