Want to have a longer life? Go to college

By Clay Evans

In the heat of the battle for the presidency, one candidate questioned the value and need for a higher education, suggesting that urging young people to go to college was the sign of a “snob.”

But, it seems, more education translates directly into longer life — and less contributes strongly to an earlier death, according to research by two University of Colorado Boulder faculty members. “Snobbery” or no, college can add years to a life.

Richard G. Rogers (left) and Fred Pampel of the CU Sociology Department

In “The Enduring Association between Education and Mortality: The Role of Widening and Narrowing Disparities” (American Sociological Review, December 2011), Richard G. Rogers and Fred Pampel of the CU Sociology Department and their co-authors — Richard Miech of the University of Colorado Denver and Jinyoung Kim of Korea University — found that disparities in mortality are actually widening when it comes to education levels.

That’s surprising, says Rogers, director of the Population Program at the Institute of Behavioral Science, given overall improvements in public health, technology and other interventions that have increased longevity among Americans in general.

“Initially we kind of thought that a rising tide would raise all boats,” he says. “You assume that everybody benefits from the changes, and that even people with lower education would catch up.”

But that doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, mortality rates for those with less than 12 years of education has been climbing since 1989, while those for Americans with a high-school diploma have remained almost flat. Meanwhile, those with at least some college education have seen steady declines, tracking proportionately with the amount. Translation: more education, more life.

Overall, mortality in terms of deaths per 100,000 people has been steadily declining. So what’s happening for those with less education?

People with more education, Rogers says, have more access to new medical findings and information on how to implement it to improve their health. They tend to have better, more regular communication with doctors, from whom they learn about new drugs and therapies and to whom they go when problems develop; they are also more likely to follow up. And people with higher education are more likely to be part of social networks that support all that.

Perhaps most important, education gives people the ability to adapt their behavior in response to ever-changing information about health — and ever-changing diseases that enter the population.

“It’s an important point, because it is not just that education leads to better conversations with doctors or gym memberships — it provides the personal resources for people to continually adapt their behavior over the life course to the new health practices and behaviors of the future,” Rogers says.

Such adaptability applies to risky behaviors that can endanger health as well as positive changes. For example, people in higher socioeconomic circles quit smoking in large numbers when the Surgeon General issued the seminal 1964 report linking tobacco use to numerous serious diseases.

“People of lower socioeconomic status have more stress and more difficulty coping, so some of these behaviors they see as self-medication,” Rogers says.

The research points to the example of  “accidental poisoning,” including overdose from opiates, which significantly increased among those with less education as the use of prescription opiates quadrupled between 1991 and 2009.

The widening gap in mortality all but guarantees that as new health threats emerge, those with less education will suffer most, Rogers says. But, he says, the silver lining is that education is something society can easily influence.

“In my perspective, education is the single most important action anybody can take to improve their health and lengthen their life,” he says. “And for policy makers, this is one of the easiest things to address: Provide affordable education and encourage people to get as much as they can.”

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