For a long life, study medicine, not arts

August 1, 2003

Arts graduates are short, sickly and destined for an early grave, according to a report published this week that could do more than all the government initiatives to boost recruitment to the sciences.

The report, based on the records of undergraduates over a 20-year period, shows that arts students are the most likely to die young, with medics enjoying the longest lives despite being heavy smokers.

Peter McCarron, fellow in cancer epidemiology at Queen's University, Belfast, led a follow-up study of 8,400 male students from all over the UK who underwent health examinations at Glasgow University between 1948 and 1968.

The project, carried out by researchers at Queen's, Bristol and Glasgow universities found that studying science, engineering, medicine, veterinary medicine and dentistry was significantly healthier than studying arts or law. Arts students were shorter than other students, while divinity students had the lowest blood pressure. Dr McCarron said a degree in medicine or science was more likely than one in arts to lead to a secure job and a good income.

"I wouldn't like to say anything about what course people should choose, because I'm absolutely certain that this is not related to courses per se, but rather to early life, where you end up and health behaviour," he said.

The findings, published in this month's Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine , show that medical students came from more affluent backgrounds than arts students and, although they smoked more than anyone else as students, they may have been more likely to quit because of health promotion campaigns. Current research shows that arts and social science students are the heaviest smokers.

Dr McCarron suggested that there could be more active health promotion campaigns in universities. But health promotion clearly goes only so far: the Glasgow medics were the most likely to succumb to alcohol-related disease. The research paper says: "We can only speculate as to whether their lower overall mortality is in part a reflection of the positive effects of alcohol."

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