Educational Differences in Adult Mortality in the United States

(April 2011) The relationship between education and adult mortality risk is well documented: Individuals with more education generally live longer. On the other hand, there is less consensus on the extent to which educational differences in mortality have been changing over time, whether educational differences in mortality widen or narrow with increasing age, and how other socioeconomic and behavioral variables affect the relationship. Robert Hummer, professor of liberal arts in the Department of Sociology and Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, outlined trends and differences in mortality as part of PRB’s Policy Seminar series.

Why does mortality risk decline with more years of education? Education facilitates access to benefits that have positive effects on longevity and accumulate over the life course. In terms of socioeconomic indicators, education is important for access to good jobs, health insurance, higher incomes, high-quality housing, and higher standards of living. Valuable social networks, good neighborhoods, and support for healthy lifestyle choices can also improve long-term health and extend life. The goal of policy should be to reduce disparities in mortality outcomes resulting from educational differences, according to Hummer.

The analysis of data from the National Longitudinal Mortality Study and the National Death Index reveals that every additional year of education contributes to some decrease in mortality risk for both men and women. However, the decline in mortality is much steeper for those who have completed 12 years of school. As a result, finishing high school is very important because it sets a new trajectory of mortality risk throughout one’s life. Reducing the high school dropout rate in the United States could reduce mortality rates and extend U.S. life expectancy.

Twenty years of data from the National Health Interview Survey and the Mortality File show a widening gap among the education groups, with larger declines in mortality risk among highly educated groups. For both non-Hispanic white men and women, education has had a growing positive impact on survival over time. On the other hand, for less-educated white women, mortality risk has increased over the past 20 years. Possible reasons include high rates of poverty among single or divorced women and higher rates of smoking. College-educated black men and women have experienced a large drop in mortality, while improvements have stagnated for blacks in other education categories. These trends suggest the possibility of long-term health benefits resulting from greater attention to quality and completion rates in schools.