NEW HAVEN, Conn. — For many people, it feels like their life doesn’t really get started until they finish school. Ironically, a new study conducted at Yale finds that staying in school may just extend one’s lifespan.
Life expectancy in the United States is on the decline for the first time in decades. It’s been hard, however, to identify one reason behind this troubling trend. A number of researchers have suggested a variety of contributing factors: inaccessible or high-priced health care, the ever-prevalent opioid problem, and the increasing rate of mental health disorder diagnoses, are just a few possible explanations.
For this study, researchers from Yale’s School of Medicine and the University of Alabama-Birmingham focused on two factors that are often thought to influence one’s lifespan: race and level of education. Data on 5,114 African-American and Caucasian individuals living in four U.S. cities was analyzed for the project.
All of these people had originally been recruited for a longevity study roughly 30 years ago when they were all in their early 20s. Today, the participants are in their early-to-mid 50s. Among the over 5,000 participants, 391 passed away since the start of the original longevity study.
The study’s authors discovered that education was a much more accurate indicator of a person’s lifespan than their race.
“These deaths are occurring in working-age people, often with children, before the age of 60,” comments corresponding author Yale’s Brita Roy, assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology, in a release.
If those deaths are broken down by race, 9% of black participants in the study passed away at an early age, along with 6% of white participants. There were also racial differences regarding cause of death; black men were more likely to die by homicide while white men were more likely to die from AIDS. That being said, the most common cause of death regardless of race was heart problems or cancer.
The most notable differences in death rates depended on education level. Roughly 13% of individuals with a high school degree or less passed away, versus just 5% of people with a college degree.
The research team say they were particularly surprised to discover that when they examined education and race simultaneously, racial differences in death rates all but vanished. In all, 13.5% of black subjects and 13.2% of white subjects with a high school degree or less passed away during the research period. Again, that number dropped to just 5.9% of black subjects and 4.3% of white participants with college degrees.
Even after accounting for other factors such as income, and utilizing an advanced statistical method that compensated for differences in age-related mortality, education was still shown to be by far the most accurate predictor of a longer life.
“These findings are powerful,” Roy concludes. “They suggest that improving equity in access to and quality of education is something tangible that can help reverse this troubling trend in reduction of life expectancy among middle-aged adults.”
The study is published in the American Journal of Public Health.