Education Plays Role in Longevity, New Study

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

These underlying social and economic effects, the research group explains, are why efforts to modify behavioral risk factors alone, such as to reduce obesity or smoking, "are not likely to have a major impact on disparities in longevity."

And the ethnic disparities in education are sharp. On the one hand, among those age 25 or older in 2008, the researchers found, more than one-third of Latinos had less than a high school education, compared with one in six African Americans and only one in 12 whites.

On the other hand, says the study, among those who "enjoy the health and longevity benefits" of a college or post-graduate degree, about one-third are white, one-sixth Black and one in eight Hispanic.

The life-expectancy findings for Hispanics are more complicated than for others. Although Latinos appear to have the highest reported life expectancy at birth among ethnic groups in the study, the researchers cautioned that other factors are in play.

Previous research cited by the study's authors shows that Latino immigrants "tend to be healthier than subsequent U.S.-born generations of Hispanics." Second- or third-generation Hispanics born in the United States experience higher mortality risks and die 10-20 percent earlier than their immigrant parents' and grandparents' generations.

As Hispanics become a larger proportion of the total U.S. population--with a higher proportion of them born here, "their current longevity advantage may diminish rapidly," the article says.

Also skewing the overall figures showing a Latino longevity advantage, says the study, many older Hispanic immigrants "return to their country of origin to die; and the people who emigrate from most countries in Latin America tend to be healthier and more highly educated than the population from which they originated."

Gap Could Grow Larger

Without greater attention to education and its impact on social factors in health, say Olshansky and his colleagues, advances in medicine and technology alone are unlikely to close disparities by race and socioeconomic status. Nationally, he noted, increased access to good educational equity is apt to improve people's health and productivity, thus reducing future demands on Medicare and dependence on Social Security--major budget issues in the presidential campaign.

They emphasize that expanding lifelong learning opportunities would be especially significant for those already in the workforce and who would find it very difficult to return to traditional formal education programs.

Olshansky and his colleagues warn that if the anticipated advances in medical science and technology continue without educational gains, by 2050 "the health and longevity gap between the two Americas could grow larger."

They recommend that American society "implement educational enhancements at young, middle, and older ages for people of all races, to reduce the large gap in health and longevity that persists today."