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Study Links Educational Attainment with Mortality

People over age 25 who have a college degree live an average of a decade longer than high-school dropouts, according to a new report from the Population Reference Bureau.

The report, "The Effect of Educational Attainment on Adult Mortality in the United States," analyzes the results of numerous studies and concludes that educational attainment seems to be a significant factor in the longevity of adults in the United States, even when family background and childhood health are taken into account.

There are numerous reasons for the phenomenon, according to the report. More-educated people may have better employment opportunities and health care than less-educated people. More highly educated people tend to have relationships with others who are highly educated and are better able to provide help when needed. Education may also improve people's ability to acquire, decipher, and act upon health information, so they can make healthier decisions.

Other findings of the report include:

  • American adults with a master's, doctoral, or professional degree have lower mortality rates than those with bachelor's degrees;
  • Age-specific mortality rates among black and white women who did not complete high school actually increased over the last two decades;
  • Two-thirds of U.S. adults ages 25 to 34 have less than a bachelor's degree; and
  • Compared to highly educated people, less-educated people are much more likely to die from preventable causes linked to social and behavioral risk factors, such as lung cancer, respiratory diseases, homicide, and accidents.

It is unclear whether free, online public education can help reduce mortality rates of less-educated people. According to Robert Hummer, co-author of the report and a professor at the University of Texas at Austin's Population Research Center, researchers haven't yet collected data on mortality rates for people who were educated online. The reasons are that online education is still a relatively new phenomenon and that death certificates and surveys conducted to this point have not collected information about how people were educated.

"It is really hard to speculate whether or not free online public education can help close the mortality gap between the less educated and more highly educated in U.S society," Hummer told us. "[O]nline education might be a useful tool in some ways toward the improvement of population health outcomes like lower mortality rates but less useful in other ways ... because educational attainment is not just about academic content, it's also about personal development, social development, and making key social connections."

Because online education is in its infancy and its quality varies tremendously, "any health/mortality benefits (or harms) it may have are likely decades down the road," said Hummer.

The full report, "The Effect of Educational Attainment on Adult Mortality in the United States," can be found on the Population Reference Bureau's site.

About the Author

Leila Meyer is a technology writer based in British Columbia. She can be reached at [email protected].

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