The University Network

Stay In School And You May Live Longer, Study Finds

There’s yet another reason to stay in school. Having a college education just might help you live a longer life, new research suggests. 

After years of increase, life expectancy in the United States is currently on the decline. A rise in drug overdoses, suicides, widespread obesity and inaccessible health care are mostly to blame. And experts have long known that people’s likelihood of falling susceptible to one of these factors and dying early is largely dependent on a number of demographic variables, including socioeconomic status, race and education level, among other things. 

Until now, though, it had been unclear which of these variables most directly impedes an individual’s likelihood of living a long life. That’s the question researchers from Yale University and the University of Alabama Birmingham set out to answer.

Using data on 5,114 black and white individuals in four U.S. cities, the researchers were able to calculate the individual impacts that education and race — the two variables most often linked to life expectancy — have on a person’s chances of living a long time. Through their analysis, they determined that education level, not race, best predicts how long someone will live.

The participants were recruited between 1985 and 1986 and followed up with nearly 30 years later. At this point, 395 of the participants are dead, and the living ones are in their mid-50s.

“These deaths are occurring in working-age people, often with children, before the age of 60,” Brita Roy, Yale assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology and corresponding author of the paper, said in a news release

About 13 percent of the participants whose education stopped after high school passed away, compared to only 5 percent of those who graduated from college. 

Race also played a bit of a role, as 9 percent of the black individuals included in the study are now dead, compared to 6 percent of the white individuals. 

Most notably, though, when evaluating race and education level at the same time, the researchers found race became much less of a factor. They noticed 13.5 percent of black participants and 13.2 percent of white participants with a high school degree or less died. By comparison, 5.9 percent of black participants and 4.3 of white participants with a college degree had died. 

“These findings are powerful,” Roy said in the release. “They suggest that improving equity in access to and quality of education is something tangible that can help reverse this troubling trend in reduction of life expectancy among middle-aged adults.”

To conduct the study, the researchers had to create a measure that would account for not only how many people died, but also how “untimely” their deaths were. Their measure, called Years of Potential Life Lost (YPLL), is calculated by subtracting someone’s actual age of death from their projected life expectancy. Someone who dies at age 25 from homicide would accrue more YPLL than someone who died from a heart problem at age 50, the release explains. Therefore, two deaths at age 50 is equal to the YPLL from one death at age 25. 

Through this measurement, the study showed that each educational step led to 1.37 fewer years of lost life expectancy. 

It’s also worth noting that while the overwhelming majority of premature deaths analyzed in the study came from cardiovascular disease and cancer, there were some differences in causes of death by race. White men were significantly more likely to die from AIDS and black men were significantly more likely to die from homicide.