How long will we all live for? Why studying population health is important
As a student at school or college weighing up your future, you probably haven’t thought much about how long you’re going to live for or when you might retire. In fact, you probably imagine yourself having a long and happy life, living well into your 80s or maybe even making a century – in high income countries with great healthcare and socio-economic benefits that’s a real possibility for people now. But for some, the stark reality is they’re unlikely to make it past middle age. In Sierra Leone, the average life expectancy is just 50 years, whereas in Japan it’s 84. Even within countries there is a difference, for example Belarus where women live, on average, to 78 but men to just 66. It is this lack of health equality which is at the heart of studying population health.
Where you were born has a huge impact on how long you are likely to live, but why should this still be the case in the 21st Century? Surely everyone now, with good healthcare and living standards, should be making it to a ripe old age? Sadly, that isn’t the case, but studying population health and the factors that shape our health – genes, social and health and social care systems, physical environment and the way we behave – can help us understand why some populations live longer than others, how diseases are spread and how they can be prevented, and ultimately help to eradicate health inequality.
Why is population health so important?
Despite the great advances in technology, health inequalities persist. Most of these can be attributed to the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age. By studying these factors from a social science perspective, you can learn how they affect people and what can be done to improve their health. It will empower you with the knowledge to predict and address the social, economic and healthcare needs of the future both locally and globally.
There are stark variations between countries but there are also variations within countries, and cities. For example, the average male life expectancy in London is 80 but 77 in Merseyside. Within London, female life expectancy at birth is 87 years in Camden, but only 82 years in Barking and Dagenham.
There are also health inequalities brought about because of economic inequalities – those at the top of the economic ladder tend to have low levels of disease and live long lives, but with each step down the chance of physical and mental illness and dying younger increases.
What qualifications do I need to study for the BSc in Population Health?
Typically, you will need to have a minimum of an A and two Bs at A level in any subjects. But you will also need to demonstrate that you can think independently and reason critically when dealing with complicated problems in population health research. You will need to be able to work effectively both in a group and on your own.
How can I make my application stand out?
It never hurts to have knowledge of the subject so make sure you read up about population health and the impact of different factors on and within communities in terms of local and global health.
You may be asked to complete a second personal statement, specifying why you’re suitable for the course so if you can, demonstrate a sound understanding of the topic and current issues surrounding population health such as recent outbreaks like Ebola and Zika or the sugar tax. Consider undertaking work experience in an organisation that makes decisions that affect public health, for example a local authority, NGO or private health consultancy.
What are the typical traits of a Population Health student?
If you’re interested in health and you would like to study the spread of disease and its prevention, but not sure you want to do a five-year degree in medicine, then the BSc in Population Health may be just what you are looking for. Population health is a far broader subject than just medicine and looks at economic factors which affect people’s life expectancy such as living in poverty, being a low/high earner and socio-demographics as well. So if you’re considering sociology, psychology, geography, anthropology, human science, biological sciences, or social statistics and have an interest in health then our course could be the one to choose.
You’ll be analysing plenty of data so you need to enjoy number-crunching. You’ll also need to enjoy critical thinking and problem-solving. A thirst for learning is a must!
What are my employment prospects?
Once you graduate, there are plenty of great opportunities for you out there in public health, private consultancy, policy and the voluntary sector. Data scientists are highly sought after by employers. You could find yourself working in a government department advising on how to reduce health inequality in different communities of the UK, in an NGO prioritising where best to focus humanitarian relief or in a pharmaceutical company deciding which demographic will most likely benefit from a new drug.
You might decide to go into research, looking at the ways disease spreads within different communities and across different countries. Population health is a far wider subject than just medical health – and our focus on data analysis means that the skills you will learn will be applicable to a wider range of professional service occupations.
Find out more about studying for a BSc in Population Health at UCL.