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Warning: courses can harm health

Choosing which subject to study at university can be a matter of life or death, reports David Henderson

"Get a life" is a teenagers' common put-down to their teachers and parents.

But if they want to live longer, they need to be careful which subjects they choose at university.

The bad news for senior pupils waiting on their Higher results and intending to pursue arts and social science courses or law is that they are more likely to cop it at a younger age than if they follow science, engineering or medical courses. Heart disease and cancer are lying in wait for more of them.

High-flying students with a string of A passes at Higher and intent on becoming doctors can draw some comfort from the latest research based on a study of 11,700 male students at Glasgow University between 1948 and 1968.

They are less likely to die young than any others. But they are more likely to fall victim to alcohol and unhappiness. The demon drink nails a high number of them.

Writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Dr Peter McCarron says that with up to 40 per cent of 18-year-olds in higher education, it has never been more important to devise strategies to stop arts and social science students smoking. Arts students are more likely to come from poorer homes and more likely to take up the tobacco habit.

His research team advises that even among those with largely affluent childhood backgrounds, choice of course at university and follow-up career does make a difference to life chances. The authors point out that medical and science degrees are more likely to lead to permanent and highly-paid jobs and therefore better health.

As doctors themselves, the team is naturally concerned about the health of the profession. Many smoked at university, although many saw the writing in the smoke and quit. Medical students had the highest proportion of fathers in the top two social classes and were among the tallest students in their year, along with engineering and law.

"The finding that former medical students had the highest mortality from alcohol-related causes illustrates the complexity of health behaviour. We can only speculate as to whether their lower overall mortality is in part a reflection of the positive effects of alcohol," Dr McCarron writes.

He sums up: "For the present we can conclude that, during the period of over 40 years after university entrance, doctors are at lower risk of death than their peers - some compensation, perhaps, for the reported unhappiness in their profession."

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