Did you know that how long you went to school can actually affect how long you live? At every level of education, there is a difference in life expectancy. This has been shown time and again in studies controlling for other factors such as income, race, and gender. Getting a high school diploma is the first step in increasing one’s statistical longevity, and the advantages above the high school level continue to increase for each year incrementally. There is a strong link between each year of post-secondary education and:
• Seat belt use
• Being a Non Smoker
• Avoiding excessive alcohol (defined as more than 5 drinks in a sitting)
• Having working smoke detectors in the home
• Having a Body Mass Index (BMI) under 30
• Getting regular colorectal screening
• Getting regular mammograms
• Access to healthcare
Even when a 4 year degree isn’t completed, there are still measurable statistical improvements from the additional schooling. For example, smoking is associated with a 6 year loss in life expectancy across the board, and for each year of education after the 12th grade, the number of smokers continues to drop. This effect is paralleled with that of overeating and heavy drinking: each year of additional education reduces their odds by a quantifiable amount. The education effect even extends to spouses: for married people, their health is affected by how educated their spouse is – the higher the spouse’s education level, the better their health.
What is particularly interesting is that the cost of the unhealthy behavior doesn’t predict the connection. For example, health insurance can be expensive even with employer assistance, and there are almost always co-pays. So it is not surprising that more educated people have health insurance – after all, their income tends to be higher and they are more likely to work for employers that assist with the cost. Lack of health insurance is a known barrier to getting adequate medical care. People who have health insurance are more likely to use preventative care that has a measurable effect on their life expectancy – but the likelihood of screenings such as mammograms is still stratified by educational level. And, there are sharp differences in people reporting being unable to see a doctor due to cost: 27% of high school dropouts, 18% of high school graduates, but only 8% of college graduates.
It’s understandable that there would be a connection between education level and access to health care. But what about practices and habits that aren’t expensive? Smoke detectors have a small cost but their implementation doesn’t follow income levels, rather, their use is predicted by educational attainment. Similarly, it’s common knowledge that wearing a seat belt saves lives, it cost nothing to buckle up, and it takes almost no time. In spite of those facts seat belt use isn’t universal, rather, it’s likelihood increases with education. Each year of formal education adds 3% to the rate of seat belt usage. And when it comes to harmful habits that clearly cost money to engage in – smoking, drinking, and overeating – they tend to be more prevalent the less formal education one has.
The association between life expectancy and educational attainment was not always so pronounced. Back in 1960, studies showed very little correlation. But perhaps it began with the 1964 Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health, which resulted in a clear decline in the number of educated people smoking. Since then, the amount and availability of health information to the average person has exploded. During the last 25 years, the longevity disparity based on education has increasingly expanded. In fact, the difference is widest in the youngest segment of the population and appears to be growing wider. In the 21st century, higher educational attainment is becoming more and more of an asset in increasing an individual’s life expectancy.