Like most people, you probably already understand the correlations between life expectancy and not smoking, eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy BMI, exercising regularly and the like. Guess what? College education may help you live longer too. According to researchers at University of North Carolina, New York University at Chapel Hill, and University of Colorado, a recent study found a link between health risk and education levels. At first glance, it may seem strange to think that educational achievement somehow affects life expectancy. After digging into the study a little and considering the benefits that go along with achieving a high education level, however, you will see that this is far from a red herring. Should you run out and earn your bachelor’s degree if you don’t have one already, then? That’s for you to decide.
College Education & Life Expectancy
The Internet is flooded with articles espousing various habits and lifestyles to adopt in order to live longer. Unfortunately, the vast majority of those articles are backed up by little or no hard, proven evidence. That’s decidedly not the case when it comes to the correlation between earning a higher education and living well into your golden years, however.
Researchers crunched data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health Interview Survey, which included responses from over one million people over the period between 1986 and 2006. The goal of the study was to determine the number of deaths that could be attributed to low levels of education. Taking numbers from the study, the group of scientists wanted to zero in on the percentage of people that had a lower life expectancy simply because they didn’t complete higher levels of education.
Researchers relied on a variety of data sources for the study. However, data culled from the National Health Interview Survey took center stage. More than a million participants between 1986 and 2006 took the survey. Participants who were born in 1925, 1935 and 1945 were included so researchers could track the effects of varying degrees of educational attainment. Thanks to the long period of time over which the survey was conducted — and the fact that it wrapped up more than a decade ago — lots of information regarding mortality in the United States was collected. The study’s methodology was meticulous, if this research was going to be taken seriously, let alone become groundbreaking study on life expectancy that is has become.
Life Expectancy: Survey Says …
First, a note about educational attainment in the U.S.: Among Americans between the ages of 25 and 34, around 10 percent do not have a high school diploma or equivalent. Around 25 percent of those folks have some college under their belts but failed to earn their bachelor’s degrees. This information is relevant with regards to the findings of the study.
Some of the most notable findings from the study include:
More than 145,000 deaths that occurred in 2010 could have been prevented if decedents had earned their high school diplomas or GEDs.
- More than 110,000 more deaths could have been prevented if decedents had finished earning their bachelor’s degrees.
- The association between educational levels and mortality has grown wider over time, which suggests that it is increasingly important to have a higher education in today’s society.
- Mortality rates among people with high school diplomas dropped mildly, and they dropped much more quickly among those who earned their college degrees.
- The number of deaths prevented by promoting the completion of a high school education doubled between those who were born in 1925 and those who were born in 1945. Again, this suggests that it is more important than ever to have a good education.
Understanding the Findings
At this point, you’re probably dying to know how educational attainment affects life expectancy–pun most definitely intended. The best way to understand this is by considering the benefits that typically go along with earning a college education:
Higher Income – People with college degrees tend to earn more than those without them. Also, of course, people with high school diplomas fare better in the compensation department than their diploma-less counterparts. Money can’t buy you everything, of course, but it can help fund a healthier, more comfortable life. People who live in poverty don’t usually have access to very nutritious food. They often work much longer hours for much less pay, which makes it more difficult for them to watch what they eat. Low-income people often lack easy access to healthcare, which often means they go without preventative care altogether. All of these factors help to increase mortality rates.
Improved Social Status – Birds of a feather flock together, so the saying goes. People with college degrees tend to have a higher social status than those who don’t. Once again, those who lack high school diplomas are even further down the social status list. Social status impacts life expectancy in many indirect ways. For instance, those without degrees are more likely to live in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas, which also tend to have higher rates of crime. Also, improved social status often means having access to large social networks of people who can help if something goes wrong in your life while people with lower social statuses often have little in the way of a safety net.
Healthier Behavior – More educated people tend to exhibit healthier behavior. They’re more likely to maintain an exercise regimen and to more carefully watch what they eat. This is partly attributable to the extra education itself; lifelong learners are more likely to stay abreast of new developments regarding health and fitness. Also, those who earn college degrees tend to be motivated individuals, and that tendency is likely to extend to staying fit and healthy. Because more educated people tend to lead healthier lifestyles, they are more likely to have a higher life expectancy.
Improved Psychological and Social Well-Being – Attending college broadens your horizons. In turn, a number of intangible benefits are enjoyed. College-educated people tend to go on to have careers that are more successful. They tend to have fewer financial problems. If they experience mental illness or other problems, they can usually get the help they need. These and other factors all contribute to making them more socially and psychologically balanced. This helps to improve life expectancy in many ways, including a reduced risk of suicide and an increased desire to stay healthy for the sake of loved ones who depend on you.
Takeaways from the Survey
Now that we are aware of the strong link between educational attainment and life expectancy, what should we do about it? Healthy People 2020 is an initiative that aims to improve Americans’ health decade by decade. One part of achieving this goal is to increase the number of people who complete high school by 2020. Initiatives like this one could go a long way toward encouraging more people to earn higher educations, which could improve overall life expectancy in the long run.
Without a doubt, education needs to be a primary element of United States health policy. This study proves that the American population has the potential to be held up an one example of the new secrets of increased life expectancy. That hasn’t been the case so far, but this survey could very well change things. Currently, earning a bachelor’s degree often means taking on crippling amounts of student loan debt. It is expected that the student debt crisis will be one of the next big battles. With any luck, it will result in a system that makes it easier and more affordable for people to attend college. The general population won’t just be more educated; it will live longer too.