New Review Shows Strong Relationship Between Health and Academic Achievement

  • May 7, 2013
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This month, HSC is thrilled to see a new study in the Journal of Adolescent Health that synthesizes decades of research and demonstrates the strong link between student health and student achievement.

Time and again through HSC’s work as an organization, we have seen research make the connections between student wellness and student achievement. Our work is grounded in the core belief that healthy students are better learners. That’s why, this month, we are thrilled to see a new study in the Journal of Adolescent Health that synthesizes decades of research and demonstrates the strong link between student health and student achievement.

Over a period of several years, Beverly Bradley, a school health consultant based in San Diego, and Amy Greene, of the National Association of Chronic Disease Directors, have been working on a report for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to demonstrate the correlation between health risks and academic achievement.

For the report, which appears in the May 2013 edition of the Journal of Adolescent Health, Bradley and Greene reviewed original research published in peer-reviewed journals between 1985 and 2010, to synthesize that relationship. Using predetermined selection criteria, 122 articles were included that used at least one variable for health-risk behaviors and academic achievement. The CDC monitors a number of these risks, including violence, tobacco use, alcohol and other drug use, sexual behaviors (including unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections), inadequate physical activity and unhealthy dietary behaviors.

For Bradley, who spent years working in schools, the link came as no surprise. “I have spent my professional life in school health,” Bradley says. “And when I made the switch from nurse to dean, I saw the same young people in my office. The students who had health problems were the same ones who were not attending school, who had poor grades, who were in the smoking area. It’s no surprise to me that the two are interrelated.”

What did surprise Bradley and Greene, however, was just how much the two are related. For all six health-risk behaviors, 96.6 percent of the studies reported statistically significant inverse relationships between health-risk behaviors and academic achievement. Nearly all the studies showed a relationship. Greene says she was surprised that despite this overwhelming evidence, there is no national coordinated effort to make education a public health issue.

Bradley and Greene say their ultimate goal is to get the study into the hands of academics, public health professionals and like-minded organizations and bring different kinds of minds together to create a solution. They specifically chose to publish this report in the Journal of Adolescent Health as opposed to an education and health-focused journal for this reason: they wanted to capture the attention of physicians, nurse practitioners and other health professionals who may not see the major connections. “Academic achievement and education are not seen as public health goals,” Greene says. “But they should be.”

Like any review of literature, however, Greene says the study does come with a couple of qualifiers. As someone who has done policy work with non-governmental organizations for many years, Greene expressed concern that policymakers may either amplify one particular finding from their study or dilute others, though she and Bradley see all elements as important. “We want this to be about the whole child,” Greene says. But she would like to see the study serve as a resource for non-governmental organizations to investigate and advocate for changes in state and national policy and prioritize working with the education sector, generating “person-power” and will within the health sector.

The two acknowledge that fixing health disparities and making student health an educational priority will not be a magical cure-all for the achievement gap. But the report does provide a knowledge base for tackling one very essential component of closing the achievement gap: reducing the health disparities that put many American students at a disadvantage in school.

And the timing is perfect, as the movement to make education a public health issue grows every day. Last week, representatives from HSC, Trust for America’s Health and a number of other like-minded organizations convened at the first meeting of the Working Group on Health and Education. The working group was formed with a charge from U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin to foster partnerships for healthy schools as part of the larger National Prevention Strategy. Resources like the one Bradley and Greene created will be essential as this work progresses, and HSC will keep you posted on the latest developments, as well as where to access copies of this fantastic report.