By LINDSEY McPHERSON
WASHINGTON (Oct. 8, 2008)—Maryland children could be healthier if their parents were more educated and had higher incomes, but the gap between the upper-class and the average family is smaller than in most states, according to a study released Wednesday by the Commission to Build a Healthier America.
"There is no innate biological reason that all children should not achieve the health levels of the kids in better-off families," Paula Braveman, one of the study's authors, said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday.
The study, sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, particularly looked at children's general health in relation to their parents' education and income levels and infant mortality rates based on mothers' educational attainment.
Increasing parents' educational attainment is important because it affects their ability to provide a healthy environment for their children, said Sue Egerter, another study author.
"I think when we look at higher levels of parents' education, that's linked to a number of different things, including healthier behaviors by parents, modeling for their children, lower exposure to unhealthy conditions like secondhand smoke, but parents' education is also linked to better jobs and increased family income," she said.
Maryland has a small disparity between the percentage of higher-income families with unhealthy children, 8.5 percent, and the overall state average, 12.2 percent, with the second lowest gap in the country - falling only behind New Hampshire. Maryland's gap is 3.6 percent, but the gap is as large as 16.1 percent in Texas.
The difference between the state's infant mortality rate, 7.4 percent, and the average rate of the most educated mothers, 5.3 percent, is a little larger than some states. With a 2.1 percent disparity, Maryland ranks 20th in this category, falling between first-place Maine (0.8 percent) and last-place District of Columbia (7.3 percent).
Even though Maryland's gaps are not as large as other states, they still show the need for reform.
"They tell us that our kids are not doing as well as they could, that all children should be doing better," Egerter said.
To prove how significant eliminating even small gaps can be, the study uses a calculator tool to show how increasing the number of college-educated adults will reduce the number of deaths in the state.
If 100 percent of adults had at least some college education, more than 5,000 Maryland deaths could be avoided each year, according to the calculator.
"Research tells us that a physical and social context in which people live can be as important as medical care for improving people's lives," said David Williams, commission staff director.
Education is just one of many social arenas where reforms must be made, Williams said. Yet, politicians are mainly focused on the economic aspect of health insurance.
"Health is driven not just by medical care, but it's where you live, learn, work, play and worship that provide opportunities to live a healthier lifestyle," Williams said. "In this political season ... there is not adequate focus on these broader determinates of health."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.