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.