The Effect of Educational Attainment on Adult Mortality in the United States

By Hummer, Robert A.; Hernandez, Elaine M. | Population Bulletin, June 2013 | Go to article overview

The Effect of Educational Attainment on Adult Mortality in the United States


Hummer, Robert A., Hernandez, Elaine M., Population Bulletin


In 2011, U.S. mortality rates reached record lows for both women and men; as a result, life expectancy at birth reached record highs: 81 years for women and 76 years for men.1 These are impressive figures.

As recently as 1960, women's life expectancy at birth was only 73.1 years and men's only 66.6 years.2 Within 50 years, life expectancy at birth increased by 8 years for women and nearly 10 years for men (see Figure 1).

Unfortunately, these increases in life expectancy mask very wide disparities among population groups. For example, remaining life expectancy at age 25-an important overall indicator of adult population health-is about a decade shorter for people who do not have a high school degree compared with those who have completed college.3 Educational attainment appears to be very important in differentiating U.S. adults' prospects for long life.

These differences represent critical health and social issues with important implications for policymakers. Because well-educated individuals have a much longer life expectancy, is such an accomplishment (or at least a substantial improvement) possible for other subgroups? The potential to reduce these educational differences in mortality and life expectancy underscores the need to accurately describe them and understand why they exist. Armed with such information, policymakers then have the evidence to ensure that U.S. adults are sufficiently educated so that no group pays a "longevity penalty."

Despite the potential to reduce educational differences in mortality, it may be overly simplistic to assume that they are easily responsive to increased future investments in the education of U.S. children. Higher levels of schooling do not necessarily cause people to live longer. Other factors, such as parental education and income, may be related to both high educational attainment and longevity among U.S. adults. If so, then even the best-intentioned policy efforts to reduce educational differences in mortality may be of little value. In short, this area of scientific inquiry and policy interest is controversial.

In this Population Bulletin, we examine educational differences in U.S. adult mortality and life expectancy. We provide a balanced and up-to-date portrait of the key results and implications of research in this area. We address five major issues: What is the current association between educational attainment and adult mortality? Have educational differences in adult mortality changed over the past 50 years? Why do such wide educational differences in adult mortality now exist? What are the policy implications of recent education-mortality research? And what are the implications of recent work in this area for future education-mortality research?

Educational Differences in Adult Mortality

Highly educated adults in the United States have lower yearly mortality rates than less-educated people in every age, gender, and racial/ethnic subgroup of the population.

The most common method of documenting annual mortality rate differences by educational attainment is to divide the adult population over age 25 into three or four educational attainment categories and then calculate mortality rates for each of them. The most typical categories include individuals who have:

* Less than a high school degree or its equivalent.

* A high school degree or its equivalent.

* Some college but not a bachelor's degree.

* A bachelor's degree or higher.

Such documentation is usually based on official U.S. mortality data from a single year. Data on the number of people who died within each educational category is derived from death certificates and serves as the numerator for the mortality rates, while the total number of people in each category comes from census-based counts or estimates and serves as the denominator.

U.S. data for adults ages 25 to 64 shows wide variation in mortality rates by educational attainment for both white women and men (see Figure 2). …

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