More Education Decreases the Risk of Death

Reading time: 5 – 8 minutes

Everyone knows that a good education is important for getting a good job. Now researchers are finding that being well-educated can lengthen your life. The study, published earlier this month in the journal PLoS ONE, finds that socioeconomic inequalities in the U.S. death rate between people with less than a high school education and college graduates increased from 1993 to 2001 [1]. The widening gap is due to (i) significant decreases in mortality from all causes, heart disease, cancer, stroke and other conditions, in the most educated and (ii) unchanged or increasing death rates in the least educated.

graduation-cap-and-diploma.jpgEpidemiologists at the American Cancer Society (ACS) worked with scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) to analyze over 3.5 million deaths from 1993 to 2001. They used data from the National Vital Statistics System (NVSS) and death certificate information to calculate annual age-standardized death rates for 25 — 64 year olds by level of education for all causes of death as well as for the seven most common causes of death (heart disease, cancer, stroke, HIV infection, diabetes, chronic lung disease, accidents).

The study restricted the analyses to deaths among non-Hispanic whites and blacks. It also excluded deaths that occurred in seven states (Georgia, Kentucky, New York, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Dakota and West Virginia) because completeness of education on death certificates in these states was less than 80% in at least one of years considered in the study.

The study found that between 1993 and 2001, the ratio of the all cause death rate in people with less than 12 years versus greater than or equal to 16 years of education significantly increased in white and black men, and in white women, indicating that those with a college education or better had an increased life expectancy. Contributing to the inequality was significant reductions in mortality for the most educated men (36% in black men and 25% in white men), largely due to decreases in death rates from HIV infection, cancer and heart disease.

Interestingly, the decrease in all cause death rates among men became larger with each additional increment of educational attainment (i.e. 12 years of education vs. 13 — 15 years vs. greater than or equal to 16 years). In women, this affect was only observed with greater than or equal to 16 years of education.

The study results support a previous investigation of county-level mortality published last month showing a steady increase in mortality inequality across the U.S. [2]. In that study, death rates between 1983 and 1999 increased for women in a large number of counties, principally due to chronic diseases related to smoking, overweight and diabetes, and high blood pressure. Most counties that showed a worsening of life expectancy were in the deep South, along the Mississippi River and in the Appalachia, extending into the southern portion of the Midwest and into Texas.

Between 1961 and 1983, counties with increased or decreased life expectancy improvements had relatively similar levels of income. However, after 1983, gain in life expectancy was positively associated with county income. Thus, those who were disadvantaged did not benefit from the increase in life expectancy experienced by the advantaged, demonstrating a large health inequality.

What does all this mean? It means those with less education are getting left behind and literally dying earlier as a result. ACS chief executive officer Dr. Otis W. Brawley, M.D. said that [3]:

People [in the U.S.] with less education have fewer financial resources, less access to health insurance or stable employment, and less health literacy. As a result, while the death rate among the most educated Americans is dropping dramatically, we’re seeing a real lack of progress or even worsening trends in the least educated persons. The gap between the best and worst off in the country is actually getting wider.

Last year, the American Cancer Society launched the Access to Health Care campaign, a national initiative to raise awareness about the problem of true access to health care. The website shows what is being done to help those uninsured and underinsured and how you can help.

Education is a marker of socioeconomic position. Lower educational attainment and thus a poorer socioeconomic position is associated with a variety of factors that affect health, including decreased financial resources, reduced access to health insurance and health literacy. Given that one of the CDC’s strategic imperatives is “all people, and especially those at greater risk of health disparities, will achieve their optimal lifespan with the best possible quality of health in every stage of life” [4], these results are troubling and highlight the growing problem with the U.S. healthcare system.


  1. Jemal et al. Widening of socioeconomic inequalities in U.S. death rates, 1993-2001. PLoS ONE. 2008 May 14;3(5):e2181. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0002181
    View abstract
  2. Ezzati et al. The reversal of fortunes: trends in county mortality and cross-county mortality disparities in the United States. PLoS Med. 2008 Apr 22;5(4):e66.
    View abstract
  3. Worsening Health Trends Among Least Educated. American Cancer Society News Center. 2008 May 14.
  4. Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Health Protection Goals. Accessed 2008 Jun 2.
About the Author

Walter Jessen is a senior writer for Highlight HEALTH Media.