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Educational inequalities in health have been widely reported. A low educational level is associated with more adverse working conditions. Working conditions, in turn, are associated with health and there is evidence that this association remains after work exit. Because many countries are raising the statutory retirement age, lower educated workers have to spend more years working under adverse conditions. Therefore, educational health inequalities may increase in the future. This study examined (1) whether there were educational differences over time in health after work exit and (2) whether work characteristics mediate these educational inequalities in health.
Data from five prospective cohort studies were used: The Netherlands (Longitudinal Aging Study Amsterdam), Denmark (Danish Longitudinal Study of Aging), England (English Longitudinal Study of Ageing), Germany (German Aging Study), and Finland (Finnish Longitudinal Study on Municipal Employees). In each dataset we used Generalized Estimating Equations to examine the relationship between education and self-rated health after work exit with a maximum follow-up of 15 years and possible mediation of work characteristics, including physical demands, psychosocial demands, autonomy, and variation in activities.
The low educated reported significantly poorer health after work exit than the higher educated. Lower educated workers had a higher risk of high physical demands and a lower risk of high psychosocial demands, high variation in tasks, and high autonomy at work, compared to higher educated workers. These work characteristics were found to be mediators of the relationship between education and health after work exit, consistent across countries.
Educational inequalities in health are still present after work exit. If workers are to spend an extended part of their lives at work due to an increase in the statutory retirement age, these health inequalities may increase. Improving working conditions will likely reduce these inequalities in health.