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If you want to live a long time, stay in school

Published: Monday, May 28 2012 9:51 p.m. MDT

Female college student sitting on floor in library, typing on mobile phone.

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POCATELLO, Idaho — On a recent Saturday morning in the Holt Arena, wave after wave of the 2012 graduating class of Idaho State University collected their degrees, their individual specialties marked by tassels in lavender, black, drab, red, green. Regardless of the color dangling from the mortarboard, the big picture was the same, playing out at graduation ceremonies across the country: College graduation is an achievement that portends better jobs, more choices and, perhaps more surprisingly, potentially longer lives.

Education and longevity are soul mates, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its recent "Health, United States, 2011" report found men with a college degree gain on average 9.3 extra years compared to men who didn't graduate from high school. Women with degrees gain 8.6 years over women without high school diplomas.

The link between more education and better health outcomes has been noted repeatedly in studies.

"If medical researchers were to discover an elixir that could increase life expectancy, reduce the burden of illness, delay the consequences of aging, decrease risky health behavior and shrink disparities in health, we would celebrate such a remarkable discovery," said the lead-in to a CDC special topic report clear back in 2007. "Robust epidemiological evidence suggests that education is such an elixir."

Education, it turns out, is a uniquely powerful predictor of health, with more years of school adding up to increasingly better health. And while it's strongly correlated with income and occupation, evidence suggests that education has its greatest impact on health, consistently associated with lower death rates, while less schooling means earlier death.

But why?

It's a little harder to tease out exactly why it's the case. But experts agree that education acts on health amid a patchwork of relationships that include demographic and family backgrounds, poor health in childhood, the increased resources higher education brings, good health behaviors and a person's social network. In short, education is a health intervention.

"The relationship of education — higher or lower — on health is a very complex topic," Julia Holmes, acting manager of the Analytics Studies Branch of the National Center for Health Statistics in the CDC, told the Deseret News. "In general, those with lower levels of education are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors and those are obvious risk factors for low health and premature mortality."

Education, she noted, is a proxy measure for economic status. She and other experts agree that people with better educations are more apt to get jobs that pay well, opening the doors to better benefits like insurance that reduce barriers to seeing doctors, improve access to healthful food choices and safer conditions, and lead to jobs that are less likely to be dangerous. Among ills that are less likely with better education levels: depression and anxiety, smoking, heart disease, obesity, days lost from work for illness.

Health experts say literacy — the pure ability to read — makes the biggest difference.

If you want to reduce infant mortality in developing countries, said Dr. Ian Bennett, a family physician who teaches at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, help the mothers get an education. "If you can keep the females in school even for a few extra grades, it improves health outcomes for their children, but also for the whole society."

Reading ability, he said flatly, is associated with living longer.

Breaking barriers

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