If you want to know how long you will live, you might stop fretting over genetics and family history and instead look at your educational achievements. Education is certainly not the only variable associated with longer lives, but it may be the most powerful.
Recent study findings published in the journal Health Affairs present a remarkable update to the already considerable research showing education to be a powerful predictor of longer life spans.
"The lifelong relationships of education and its correlates with health and longevity are striking," the article said. "Education exerts its direct beneficial effects on health through the adoption of healthier lifestyles, better ability to cope with stress, and more effective management of chronic diseases. However, the indirect effects of education through access to more privileged social position, better-paying jobs, and higher income are also profound."
While the findings are good news for educated Americans, they also indicate that medical and lifestyle breakthroughs that have triggered the much-publicized longevity revolution are not being enjoyed by less-educated Americans whose lifespans have fallen further behind over time. This trend has implications for the debate about raising the Social Security retirement age. It also adds a compelling mortality tale to the economic costs of the nation's falling educational-achievement levels compared with other nations.
Within U.S. racial groups, educational achievement is associated with significant longevity benefits. But compared across racial groups, the longevity gap is even greater, which indicates continued race-based differences in how long Americans live. The Health Affairs article was co-authored by 15 leading academic experts in aging and longevity. The research was conducted by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on an Aging Society.
"We found that in 2008 U.S. adult men and women with fewer than twelve years of education had life expectancies not much better than those of all adults in the 1950s and 1960s," the article said. "When race and education are combined, the disparity is even more striking."
Within racial and ethnic groups, there was a pronounced longevity benefit when comparing people with 16 or more years of school with those with less than 12 years. Among women, the differences in life expectancy at birth were 10.4 years among whites, 6.5 years among blacks, and 2.9 years for Hispanics. Among men, the gaps were 12.9 years among whites, 9.7 years among blacks, and 5.5 years for Hispanics.
But the differences were more striking across all racial groups. "White U.S. men and women with 16 years or more of schooling had life expectancies far greater than black Americans with fewer than 12 years of education—14.2 years more for white men than black men, and 10.3 years more for white women than black women," the article said.
"These gaps have widened over time and have led to at least two 'Americas,' if not multiple others, in terms of life expectancy, demarcated by level of education and racial-group membership." Compared with similar 1990 measures, by 2008, the gap among men had widened by nearly a year, and among women, by more than two-and-a-half years.
"The current life expectancy at birth for U.S. blacks with fewer than twelve years of education is equivalent to the life expectancy observed in the 1960s and 1970s for all people in the United States, but blacks' longevity has been improving with time," the article said.
That hasn't been the case for whites. "White males with fewer than twelve years of education currently have a life expectancy at birth equivalent to that of all men in the United States born in 1972, while white females with similar education have the life expectancy of all women in the country born in 1964," it added. "And the longevity of these white males and females is growing worse over time."
The impact of education on lifespans is so powerful, the authors said, that improving people's health and lifestyle behaviors alone "are not likely to have a major impact on disparities in longevity." The authors called on policymakers to "implement educational enhancements at young, middle, and older ages for people of all races, to reduce the large gap in health and longevity that persists today."