Education Plays Role in Longevity, New Study

New America Media | 9/19/2012, 12:42 p.m.

The longevity gap between "two Americas" has widened since 1990, says a new study. One America is mostly white and well educated, and the other is ethnic or undereducated - and dying about a decade sooner than their more affluent counterparts.

The gap between college-educated whites and African Americans who did not complete high school is "simply unbelievable," stated S. Jay Olshansky, lead author of the extensive new analysis published in the August issue of the prestigious health policy journal Health Affairs.

The researchers, who crunched mortality numbers in key databases from 1990-2008, found that white men in the United States with 16 years or more of schooling had life expectancy at birth of 14.2 years longer than African American males with fewer than 12 years of education. The gulf between well-educated white women and black women with low educational levels was 10.3 years.

The research study is published with the stark title, "Differences in Life Expectancy Due to Race and Educational Differences Are Widening, and Many May Not Catch Up." It is the latest publication by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on an Aging Society, a roster of 15 leading academic experts in aging and longevity.

Low Education Shortens Life for All Groups

The report shows that lower educational levels marked declining life expectancy within every demographic group examined.

The gap between black women of high versus low educational levels was 6.5 years, and for Latinas the difference was 2.9 years. For males the longevity gaps were 12.9 years among whites, 9.7 years among blacks and 5.5 years for Hispanics.

What's more, the picture for those with fewer than 12 years of education "has grown notably worse for whites," says the study. In terms of educational status "whites at the bottom are losing ground at a faster pace" than those at the top.

The gulf between white women is especially wide, says the report. Those with 12 years or less of education were living just over a decade (10.4 years) less than white American females with at least 16 years of schooling.

The two Americas--those with very high versus very low education--are in a longevity "time warp," Olshansky asserted.

While those with higher levels of formal learning are gaining longevity dividends every year, those least educated have had life expectancy linger at mid-20th century levels. Although blacks have added years slightly overall, among those with the lowest education, longevity for African American men is stuck at the average life expectancy the United States reached in 1954. For other groups with the least education, black women linger at the 1962 level, white women hover in 1964, and poorly schooled white men only live as long as Americans did in 1972.

Medical Advances Not Enough

According to the study, higher education directly affects health because increased learning prompts more people to adopt healthier lifestyles it improves their ability to cope with stress, and enables them to manage chronic diseases more effectively.

However, the report says, education's indirect effects, such as increasing one's access to "more privileged social position, better-paying jobs and higher income are also profound."