Education: It Matters More to Health than Ever Before



Americans with fewer years of education have poorer health and shorter lives, and that has never been more true than today. In fact, since the 1990s, life expectancy has decreased for people without a high school education, and especially white women.

Education is important not only for higher paying jobs and economic productivity, but also for saving lives and saving dollars.

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Saving lives
Policies that set kids up for success—in education and life generally—are smart strategies for reducing the prevalence of chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease. More education leads to higher earnings that can provide access to healthy food, safer homes, and better health care. And policies in communities can help put children on track for better health and prosperity by strengthening schools, job opportunities, economic growth, safe and affordable housing, and transportation.

Saving dollars
Medical care is important, but actions outside of health care—education, jobs, and economic growth—may be the best way to stem spiraling health care costs ("bend the cost curve"). Disinvesting in education not only makes U.S. businesses less competitive in a global marketplace built on science and technology,
but can also increase health care costs in the long run.

"Saving" money by cutting vital "non-health" programs can cost more in the end. We don’t help ourselves by creating a sicker population and workforce that require more expensive medical care.

Now, more than ever, people with less education
face a serious health disadvantage:

  • Shorter lives: Americans with less education are—now, more than ever—dying earlier than their peers. Between 1990 and 2008, the life expectancy gap between the most and least educated Americans grew from 13 to 14 years among males and from 8 to 10 years among females. The gap has been widening since the 1960s.1 Read more +/-
  • Worse health: Americans with less education are—now, more than ever—more likely to have major diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes. By 2011, the prevalence of diabetes had reached 15 percent for adults without a high school education, compared with 7 percent for college graduates.10 Read more +/-
  • More risk factors: Those with less education are increasingly more likely to have risk factors that predict disease, such as smoking and obesity. By 2011, smoking was reported by 27 percent of people without a high school diploma or GED but by only 8 percent of those with a Bachelor’s degree.10 Read more +/-
  • Greater disability: Americans with less education are more likely to have diminished physical abilities for health reasons or to be disabled. Read more +/-

Americans without a high school diploma are at greatest risk:

  • Death rates are climbing: Adults with fewer than 12 years of education have been dying sooner since the 1990s. While overall life expectancy has generally increased, it has decreased for whites with fewer than 12 years of education, especially white women. Among whites with less than 12 years of education, life expectancy at age 25 fell by more than three years for men and by more than five years for women between 1990 and 2008.1 Read more +/-
  • Mortality trends for white women have reversed: Life expectancy increased for other Americans but has fallen for whites with fewer than 12 years of education, especially white women. Among whites with less than 12 years of education, life expectancy at age 25 fell from 47.0 to 43.6 years for males and from 54.5 to 49.2 years for females.1 Read more +/-

Compared to those with a college education, Americans with less education:

  • Die earlier: At age 25, U.S. adults without a high school diploma can expect to die 9 years sooner than college graduates. Read more +/-
  • Live with greater illness: Adults with less education are more likely to report diabetes and heart disease and to have worse health. Read more +/-
  • Generate higher medical care costs: The growing percentage of Americans in poor health intensifies demands on the health care system and fuels the rising costs of health care.
  • Are less productive at work: A good education is important to work productivity on many levels, not just in cognitive skills but also in performing basic everyday tasks. Read more +/-
  • Experience more psychological distress: Stress is higher among poorly educated Americans, and this can have harmful biological effects. Read more +/-
  • Have less healthy lifestyles: People with a high school education or less are more likely to have risk factors for disease—to smoke, to smoke while pregnant, to be physically inactive, to be obese, or to have children who are obese.10

What about race?
For generations in the United States, life expectancy has been higher among whites than blacks. But the differences in life expectancy by levels of education are now greater among whites than among people of color. Read more +/-

What's the cause? Why does education matter more to health now?

  • In today's knowledge economy, education paves a path to good jobs: Completing more years of education confers health benefits after leaving school, such as better health insurance, access to medical care, and the resources to live a healthier lifestyle and to reside in healthier homes and neighborhoods. Read more +/-
  • Early childhood shifts the odds for successin health and education: Children who grow up in struggling, stressful homes or neighborhoods pay a double price: the living conditions disturb their education, and stress and other life conditions can cause lasting biological harms and cause youth to take up unhealthy or risky behaviors, such as smoking or violence. Read more +/-

Connect the dots
Education matters to health, and so do the conditions in neighborhoods and communities that harm the health of young children, trigger unhealthy or risky behaviors, and undermine the success of students and schools. Policies that address early child care, housing, transportation, food security, unemployment, and economic development are important to both education and health.

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