Those who study arts die young

A new study suggests that the course you study at university could affect how long you live. To be, or not to be — an arts, science, medicine or engineering student? A study revealed that what you study could affect your long-term health.

According to another report, science and engineering students have the best chances of living a longer, healthier life, followed by medical students, and then those in law and art. The research shows that science graduates were the least inclined to smoke and so had the lowest lung cancer rates. They also had the lowest heart disease and death rates overall. Sir Paul Nurse, CEO of Cancer Research UK and a recent Nobel laureate, believes that scientists, for the most part, have always struggled to find secure employment. Rather, he believes that science and engineering jobs are relatively less stressful.

Medical students were the second heaviest smokers, though their low levels of lung cancer. Dr Raj Persaud, a consultant psychiatrist at Maudsley Hospital in London, understands why: “Most people in medical school tended to give it up the moment they did dissection in anatomy — when they saw a smoker’s lungs, which were a charred, black mess as opposed to the pink that lungs are supposed to be, most of them quit smoking almost immediately.” However, medical students were also the most likely to die from alcohol related causes, including accidents. Persaud, who runs a stress clinic for doctors, says they have a higher suicide rate because they “have access to drugs and know how best to do away with themselves in a reliable manner.” He believes vulnerability is another factor: “They don’t want to see themselves as sick, so they have a problem coming forward,” he says.

Arts students fare poorly in the report. They smoked heavily and had the highest mortality and lung-cancer rates. Their poor health performance is blamed on arts students coming from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds and having relatively fewer employment and income prospects.

The report’s findings that lawyers had the second highest rate of alcohol-related deaths and the highest levels of accidents, suicide or violence come as little surprise to Stephens: “I think we all drink more than is probably good for us as a profession, mainly because we have the wherewithal to do it and because it’s seen as a way of relieving stress. I think suicide goes with stress. It is an enormously stressful profession because it’s only your performance that counts and you’re judged on every case,” he says. What can certainly be concluded from the study, McCarron says, is that there is scope for universities to try to do something about reducing the rate of smoking in students. As to whether one field of study should be recommended over another, he’s equally convinced: “The old reason for doing a course at university is still the best one: do it because it’s what you’re interested in. I don’t think it is all down to the subject that people do — sure, it’s going to dictate to some extent what happens later in life, but that’s always in flux.”