Economic prosperity, improved hygiene and greater access to education may come with some unintended health consequences—though not in the way you might think. The National Post reports on a study that suggests there may be a link between a good education and the chances of developing a food allergy.
The research study, a phone survey conducted jointly by academics from McGill University in Montreal and McMaster University in Hamilton, found that individuals who came from well-educated families were twice as likely to suffer from dangerous food allergies.
What explains the negative association between education and allergies? It’s not entirely clear, but the researchers speculate that the more educated households may be too hygienic, i.e., they live cleanly in smaller groups, stay up-to-date on vaccines and treat infection with antibiotics.
The theory that our overly conscientious, anti-bacterial-cleanser lifestyle may actually impair the immune system isn’t new. Called the “hygiene hypothesis” it’s a popular theory among some experts who argue that too-clean environments negatively affect the immune system response (allergies are the result of an aggressive response by the immune system to something it views as a foreign entity).
No one is counseling letting the house go to hell, abandoning vaccinations or antibiotic use, however.
Dr. Moshe Ben-Shoshan, who led the study, implied that the findings represent a Catch-22 for parents and doctors.
Said Shoshan: “We can’t suggest we become dirtier and expose our children to more bacteria. If the price of having fewer allergies is more infection, I don’t know any parent who would expose their child to more infection.”
The Canadian study, while lending support to the hygiene hypothesis, also indicated other areas for further research. For example, the study found that immigrants had far fewer food allergies than native Canadians. That leads some to believe that North Americans dietary habits and our reliance on heavily processed foods may be a factor in the increased numbers of food allergies.