By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 3 March 2012)
Want to live longer and stay healthier? Research findings suggest that you should stay in school.
Scientists and economists studying longevity have found that education enhances health and life expectancy regardless of genetic predisposition, income, race, or geographic location.
More Education Increases the Likelihood of a Long, Healthy Life
Many people assume that genetics and affluence are the best predictors of longevity, but recent research indicates that education is more important than genetic predisposition, race, or any other factor in predicting longevity. This means that a well-educated person coming from a poor family has better prospects for a longer, healthier life than an uneducated rich person.
Other factors such as smoking, social support, exercise, nutrition, and working in a job where one has some degree of power and control also play a significant role in longevity. But higher education increases the likelihood of having a better job and living a healthy lifestyle.
Every Year of Education Counts
In the previous century when various states began requiring longer school attendance, life expectancy increased accordingly. This effect has been seen in many different countries, where both health and longevity increased along with average years of education. Overall, researchers have found that:
- High school graduates outlive dropouts by just 6-9 years on average (Wong et al., 2002).
- 25-year-olds in 2000 who had some college could expect to live about 7 years longer on average than those who had not attended postsecondary (Dye, 2008).
- Life expectancy for the better educated has increased dramatically in recent years, whereas among the less educated, it has remained about the same (Dye, 2008).
- People with more years of education are far more likely to report that they are in very good health than less-educated individuals (Hitti, 2009).
The following theories have been put forth to explain why education increases longevity and health.
Education Increases Health Literacy
Those with more education have better reading skills, and thus have the potential to develop greater health literacy (medical knowledge and understanding). A study of more than 3,000 Medicare patients found that those with greater health literacy were significantly less likely to die of cardiovascular disease than their less-literate counterparts (Baker et al., 2007). This reduced mortality likely occurred because the more literate individuals were able to access the information required to prevent or effectively manage medical problems.
Better-educated individuals also tend to have more knowledge of and a more positive attitude toward technology. This means that they are more likely to understand and seek out effective, technologically advanced medical treatments.
More Educated People Make Healthier Choices
Better-educated individuals are more likely to avoid health-damaging behaviours than their less-educated counterparts, even though public health campaigns have ensured that most people understand the dangers of certain behaviours. People with more education are better able to plan for the future and delay gratification. As a result, they are less likely to engage in dangerous behaviours such as smoking, and more likely to engage in safety behaviours such as wearing seatbelts and ensuring that working smoke detectors are installed in their homes.
Those with more education also usually have a greater understanding of nutrition and so can feed themselves and their families better. However, their better nutrition also results, to some degree, from the fact that more nutritious foods tend to be pricier, while junk foods are usually cheaper. Higher levels of education usually bring higher salaries, and the more educated are usually able to afford better food.
Those with Higher Education Make More Money
According to Barth (2003), having more education increases average earnings significantly. Lifetime earnings for different education levels are as follows:
- High school dropout – 1 million
- High school diploma – 1.2 million
- Some college – 1.5 million
- Bachelor’s degree – 2.1 million
- Master’s degree – 2.5 million
- PhD – 3.4 million
Affluence usually ensures access to better nutrition and medical care, but even those from poor families increase their earning potential dramatically through higher education. And countries with a higher average level of education tend to be more technologically advanced, and thus can provide better medical treatment.
However, increased longevity through education works regardless of income, so the hypothesis that education improves health only by enabling people to earn more money does not hold up. Also, researchers have found that poor health increases the likelihood of poverty rather than the other way around. So, while money certainly helps, it appears that education itself is more important than any other factor.
Education Enhances Prospects for Health and Longevity
Ultimately, there are no guarantees. Those who smoke and eat junk food will be at risk no matter how much education they have, and there are certainly well-educated people who make poor choices and uneducated people who take care of their health. But given that education is correlated with better health and longer life, it is obvious that schooling is not only a social issue, but also a medical one.
The good news is that people are never too old to obtain more education. Flexible distance education options enable older adults to incorporate higher education into busy or unusual schedules, and the Internet provides plenty of opportunities for lifelong learning.
For more health articles, visit the main Mind-Body Health page.
- Baker, D.W.; Wolf, M.S.; Feinglass, J.; Thompson, J.A.; Gazmararian, J.A.; & Huang, J. (2007). “Health Literacy and Mortality Among Elderly Persons.” Archives of Internal Medicine, 167(14): 1503-1509.
- Barth, P. (2003). “A Common Core curriculum for the New Century.” In Thinking K-16, 7(1). Washington, DC: The Education Trust, pp. 3-31. ECS.org.
- Dye, L. (12 March 2008). “Longevity Linked to Education, Study Suggests: Researchers Find More Education Leads to Healthier Choices.” ABC News, ABCNews.go.com/Technology.
- Hitti, M. (6 May 2009). “More Education, Better Health.” WebMD Health News, Medicine.net.
- Hoban, R. (21 March 2008). “Harvard Researcher: Education Key to Longevity.” Voice of America, VOANews.com.
- Kolata, G. (3 January 2007). “A Surprising Secret to a Long Life: Stay in School.” New York Times, NYTimes.com.
- Ricci, F., & Zachariadis, M. (2008). Longevity and Education Externalities: A Macroeconomic Perspective. EconPapers.Repec.org.
- Wong, M.; Shapiro, M.; Boscardin, W.; & Ettner, S. (2002). “Contribution of Major Diseases to Disparities in Mortality,” New England Journal of Medicine, 347(20), pp. 1,585-1,592.