Background: Our understanding of social disparities in diabetes-related health behaviors is incomplete. The purpose of this study was to determine if having less education is associated with poorer diabetes-related health behaviors.
Methods: This observational study was based on a cohort of 8,763 survey respondents drawn from ~180,000 patients with diabetes receiving care from 68 provider groups in ten managed care health plans across the United States. Self-reported survey data included individual educational attainment ("education") and five diabetes self-care behaviors among individuals for whom the behavior would clearly be indicated: foot exams (among those with symptoms of peripheral neuropathy or a history of foot ulcers); self-monitoring of blood glucose (SMBG; among insulin users only); smoking; exercise; and certain diabetes-related health seeking behaviors (use of diabetes health education, website, or support group in last 12 months). Predicted probabilities were modeled at each level of self-reported educational attainment using hierarchical logistic regression models with random effects for clustering within health plans.
Results: Patients with less education had significantly lower predicted probabilities of being a non-smoker and engaging in regular exercise and health-seeking behaviors, while SMBG and foot self-examination did not vary by education. Extensive adjustment for patient factors revealed no discernable confounding effect on the estimates or their significance, and most education-behavior relationships were similar across sex, race and other patient characteristics. The relationship between education and smoking varied significantly across age, with a strong inverse relationship in those aged 25-44, modest for those ages 45-64, but non-evident for those over 65. Intensity of disease management by the health plan and provider communication did not alter the examined education-behavior relationships. Other measures of socioeconomic position yielded similar findings.
Conclusion: The relationship between educational attainment and health behaviors was modest in strength for most behaviors. Over the life course, the cumulative effect of reduced practice of multiple self-care behaviors among less educated patients may play an important part in shaping the social health gradient.