More Investment in Education Could Shrink the Life Expectancy Gap Between the Most- and Least-Educated Americans, Report Suggests

Jul 15, 2013, 13:00 ET from Population Reference Bureau

WASHINGTON, July 15, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Highly educated adults in the United States live longer than less-educated Americans, and this gap has widened in the past 50 years, according to a new report from the Population Reference Bureau. People age 25 or older who have completed college live on average about a decade longer than those without a high school degree, the analysis of numerous studies documents.

Co-authors Robert Hummer, a professor at University of Texas at Austin's Population Research Center, and Elaine Hernandez, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center, examine the growing body of evidence suggesting that investments in education may double as health investments, improving Americans' long-term health and life expectancy. (They will discuss the report's findings and take questions during a webinar on Tuesday, July 16, 2013, 1 p.m. EDT)

"Educational attainment appears to play an important role in U.S. adults' prospects for long life," said Hummer.

More education is linked to better health in multiple complex ways, even when family background and childhood health are taken into account: More-educated people may experience better life-long employment opportunities, with access to health insurance and better health care, he explained. And more-educated people have relationships with others who are more highly educated, who are in better positions to help them out when they need it.

The experience of being in school also likely improves individuals' ability to acquire, decipher, and act upon health information, enabling them to make healthier decisions and live healthier and longer lives. While cigarette smoking has become much less common among all U.S. adults in recent years, smoking is much more prevalent among the less educated than the highly educated, he noted.

Hummer pointed to a study that shows that the odds of death in a given year are dramatically lower for American adults who have a high school degree compared with those who do not. With each year of schooling beyond high school, the annual risk of death continues to decline.

Given that more than one in 10 U.S. young adults lacks a high school degree, "reducing the high school dropout rate is a very reasonable first step in designing an effective education policy that could cut U.S. mortality and improve longevity," he said.

Other findings:

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

PRB's Center for Public Information on Population Research produced the report with funding from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The Population Reference Bureau informs people around the world about population, health, and the environment, and empowers them to use that information to improve the well-being of current and future generations.

Contact: Ellen Carnevale, 202-939-5407;

SOURCE Population Reference Bureau