Want to live a long life? Stay in school.
At least that's the implication of a new study from Harvard University. The study found a "stunning" correlation between the longer lifespan of people with at least one year of college compared to people with a high school education or less, according to David Cutler, dean of social sciences at Harvard. And the gap is growing.
Cutler and Ellen Meara, assistant professor of health care policy at the Harvard Medical School, report on their research in the current issue of the journal Health Affairs. They found that persons with at least one year of college increased their lifespan by nearly a year and a half from 1980 to 1990. But those with a high school diploma or less gained only about six months.
From 1990 to 2000, the more educated gained an additional 1.6 years of expected lifespan, while the less-educated remained flat. That trend persisted for blacks and whites, males and females, with some slight deviations.
In an interview, Cutler compared the findings to the perception that a "rising tide lifts all boats. What we've done here is find that a rising tide lifts only half the boats."
So going to college means you're really going to live longer? Not in and of itself. What the study really suggests is that more education contributes to a different life style in which persons are less likely to engage in risky or unhealthy behavior.
Education, Cutler said in a telephone interview, changes the way we see the world, and ourselves.
"It changes how people approach things, cognitively, how much they trust science," he said. So the teacher who tries to convince students that it's important to learn math and appreciate fine art and hone a skill is doing more than simply educating. What's involved here is a change in life.
But what's killing people isn't a lack of education. It's such fundamental issues as smoking, obesity and inactivity. And all those things are reflected in the level of education.
"Smoking among the better educated people is very low, very frowned upon," he said. "But we have not done the same thing for the less educated. That's the big thing that's really killing us."
Despite billions of dollars spent on warning against smoking, less educated persons, especially, continue to smoke. Cutler insists that doesn't mean the message isn't getting through. It just means it isn't being heeded.
"Your first hunch is people just need to be told," Cutler said. "But it turns out everybody, everybody, knows smoking is bad for you." The Harvard research shows that the more education you have, the more likely you will avoid smoking.
"College grads smoke less than people with some college but are not college grads," Cutler said. "And high school grads smoke less than people who didn't finish high school."
And that doesn't just apply to that powerful killer, smoking.
"It turns out that across the board, if you look at any health behavior, better educated people do better than less educated," he added. "Anything from smoking, obesity, wearing seat belts, having a smoke detector in your house, not using illegal drugs, not drinking heavily, better educated people do better."
That doesn't mean everybody needs a doctorate degree. But the more education you have, the healthier you are likely to be.
Cutler, Meara and Seth Richards, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, used two huge data banks to examine the role education plays in longevity, one covering 1981 to 1988, and another from 1990 to 2000. The cutoff for education was one year of college. They examined death statistics for African-Americans and white Americans, men and women, to see what life expectancy each person had at the age of 25.
Gains in lifespan grew by 30 percent during those periods for the "better educated," which the researchers attribute primarily to decreased smoking. Conversely, the life expectancy for less-educated persons has plateaued due largely to "tobacco use, obesity and under use of preventive and screening services."
Here are some of the other findings:
"Between the 1980s and 2000, life expectancy increases occurred nearly exclusively among high-education groups. Comparing 1981-88 with 1991-98, life expectancy at age 25 grew 1.4 years for high education people but only 0.5 years for low education people -- a difference of nearly a year. Between 1990 and 2000, life expectancy grew 1.6 years for the high education group but remained unchanged for the low-education group.
"In 2000, life expectancy (remaining) for a 25-year-old with a high school diploma or less was 50 years. For a person with some college, life expectancy was nearly 57 years.
"The growing educational gap in life expectancy was most pronounced among women, regardless of race.
"Within the high-education group, life expectancy increased for both males and females, but the gains for men were almost double those for women."
So Cutler insists there is some good news in the report. Some people are living longer, and his study attributes that to a change in life style, facilitated largely by a higher education.
Of course, he's talking in generalities here. We all know some guy with a doctorate degree who is overweight, smokes and drinks like a fish. He's more likely to die young. Sometimes even a good education can't keep smart people from doing dumb things.
Lee Dye is a former science writer for the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in Juneau, Alaska.