Lifestyle

How can education make you live longer? It's complicated | Gustafson

The average life expectancy of all Americans has continuously increased over the past few generations for a number of reasons, including advances in nutrition, hygiene and medical care.

But there are significant disparities within the population, which seem to be linked to social, economic and – as it turns out – educational differences.

According to a new study by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, there could be a direct correlation between a person's education and the number of years he or she can hope to live.

For this study, researchers analyzed more than 3,000 counties nationwide and ranked them within their respective states by a number of diverse measures, including access to quality healthcare, obesity rates, tobacco sales, unemployment, environmental pollution, crime rates, even the density of fast food outlets.

The significance of education levels stood out.

"If you have a community with a high number of high school dropouts, with a high unemployment rate and with children living in poverty, you can absolutely predict that poor health outcomes will be coming down the road," said Dr. Pat Remington, associate dean at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and director of the study.

Unemployment and poverty do not only lead to deprivation of essential resources such as good nutrition and basic health care but often also to self-destructive behaviors like smoking and alcohol- and drug abuse.

"All these things are part of a web of health," Dr. Remington added.

The Wisconsin study is not the first that has found a link between education and longevity. A study from Harvard University, published in 2008, described "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 Dr. David Cutler, dean of social sciences at Harvard. Better educated adults gained on average 1.5 years of life expectancy over 10 years and an additional 1.6 years over 20 years compared to those with a high school diploma or less.

Better education, better lifestyles

Going to college by itself, of course, does not automatically make you live longer. But the study does suggest that better education often leads to better lifestyle choices.

"It turns out that across the board, if you look at any health behavior, better educated people do better than less educated, said Dr. Cutler. "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," he said.

Conversely, the average life expectancy of obese people, smokers and those without access to preventive health care has begun to plateau. Due to growing childhood obesity, some experts predict that the lifespan of significant parts of the population will likely decline in the future.

Needless to say that none of these findings are clear-cut. There are plenty of folks with PhDs and beyond who are overweight and smoke and drink heavily.

"Sometimes, even a good education can't keep smart people from doing dumb things," said Lee Dye, a science writer for the Los Angeles Times who reported on the Harvard study.

And even centenarians have bad habits. Researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine found that the 100-plus crowd does generally not adhere to dramatically healthier lifestyle choices than the rest of us. There seems to be no particular formula that allows some people to live exceptionally long lives.

Even genetic factors have turned out to be less important than some have suggested, as demonstrated in studies that followed identical twins who were separated at birth, lived under vastly different circumstances and died at different ages.

More active, the better

Besides reasonably healthy diet and lifestyle choices, one thing, however, seems to matter greatly. People who remain free of debilitating illnesses at old age, physically as well as mentally, are typically very active. They enjoy a vibrant social life, pursue multiple interests, maintain a positive attitude and know how to take care of their needs. They may be well educated, but not always in terms of formal education. An open mind and an insatiable curiosity may have gotten them just as far.

Timi Gustafson RD, LDN is a clinical dietitian and author of the book "The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun"®, which is available on her blog, "Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.", and at amazon.com.

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