Higher education can not only boost your brainpower and income-earning potential; it may also increase your longevity. That’s the key conclusion of new research showing less-educated women are more likely to die earlier in life than their better-educated peers.
The study, which examined death records from the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s, also found that growing disparities in economic circumstances and health behaviors — tied to employment status and smoking habits — across education levels accounted for an important part of the widening mortality gap.
"Based on the information we get from the news, it seems that life expectancy just keeps going up, and we're all riding this wave," said lead researcher Jennifer Karas Montez, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholar at Harvard University. "But, the reality is, life expectancy is not increasing for everyone. In fact, for low-educated white women, it appears to be declining. And, this is disturbing."
The findings are based on an analysis of medical records of 46,744 white women, aged 45-84, from 1997-2006.
Montez and co-author Anna Zajacova, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Wyoming, divided the women into two groups: those without a high school credential ("low educated") and those with at least a high school credential ("high educated").
The researchers found that the odds of dying earlier in life were 37 percent higher among low-educated white women than their high-educated peers from 1997 to 2001, and 66 percent greater from 2002 to 2006.
"Previous research has shown that over the past half century, the gap in adult mortality across education levels has grown in the United States for white and black men and women, and since the mid-1980s, the growth has been especially pronounced among white women," said Montez. "Those of us who have studied this disturbing trend have been really good at documenting it, but we have not been very good at explaining why it is happening. The reasons for the growing mortality gap are poorly understood."
According the researchers, employment status and smoking trends were the most important factors in the life-expectancy differences between less-educated and more-educated women.
"The role of employment is intriguing and, to our knowledge, has not been previously examined as a potential explanation of the growing education gap in mortality," Montez said. "Employment matters a lot is what the data is telling us, and that has implications for what can be done to stop the troubling trend.
"Employment provides both manifest and latent benefits, such as social networks and a sense of purpose. It also enhances self-esteem and offers mental and physical activity.
Access to social networks and support through employment may have become more important in recent decades, with high divorce rates, smaller families, and geographic mobility disrupting other avenues of support."
This study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.
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