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Brian Sullivan

Lifelong Education and Living Longer

» Written by // September 30, 2010 // ,


There have been numerous studies trying to pinpoint why those with a higher education tend to live longer lives than those who don’t. One possibility is that the more educated you are, the more likely you are able to think for yourself, make healthier, educated choices about what to eat, not to smoke or drink, and generally make more money. Also, those people who have a higher education usually make more money which lends itself to better health care and a healthier way of life.

One theory by Ellen Peters, a psychological scientist at Decision Research in Oregon, focuses on the possibility that formal schooling teaches people to think and these skills will carry on into adulthood and lead to healthier choices. She took her research to rural Ghana because it as a huge HIV/AIDS problem and because only half of the adults in that area are uneducated. Peters compared those who were schooled versus those that were unschooled and found that even a small amount of formal education lead to better health and the ability to make better decisions about protection against HIV.

Peters reported in Psychological Science that, “schooling led to sharper cognitive skills across the board, and these enhanced intellectual abilities in turn led to more protective health behaviors.” However, her study found one very important detail. It wasn’t just the knowledge about HIV and AIDS that led to healthier living, but cognitive abilities like memory and working with numbers that better assisted people in their everyday life, and helped them “extrapolate to new situations and reason statistically in everyday life.”

Here in America, studies have also been conducted on why those with a higher education seem to live longer than those who have less education. James Smith, a health economist at the RAND Corporation, found that in general, race, genetics or income does not affect longevity as much as education. “What may make the biggest difference in living longer is not giving people more Social Security or health insurance, but keeping young people in school,” says Smith. “A few extra years of school is associated with extra years of life and vastly improved health decades later, in old age.”

Other experts agree. “If you were to ask me what affects health and longevity,” says Michael Grossman, a health economist at the City University of New York, “I would put education at the top of my list.”

The first quest to find out if longevity and education had a connection was with a Columbia University graduate student in 1999. Adriana Llera-Muney found a paper written in 1969 by three economists that concluded that if you wanted to improve your health it was best to invest in education than medical care. She researched the topic some more and found that 100 years ago, different states started passing laws to make children go to school for longer periods of time. So she set out to research the laws in different states for school requirements and then use data from the census to find out how long people lived before and after the law in each state changed. Her conclusion was amazing. She discovered that life expectancy, age 35 at the time, was extended by one and half years simply by going to school for one extra year.

Dr. Lleras-Muney and other researches offer some explanations for the “education effect.” “As a group, less educated people are less able to plan for the future and to delay gratification,” says Muney.

Studies also show that education may help teach people how to work hard and delay gratification so they are more able to think ahead to plan for the future. “Most of adherence is unpleasant,” says Dr. Smith, at RANDS. “You have to be willing to do something that is not pleasant now and you have to stay with it and think about the future.”

For now, most scientists conclude that education plays a major role in longer life spans. But there still lies questions on how and when to do it. Either way, a higher education can deliver more benefits than just a diploma; it can deliver a longer, healthier life.


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