Given the amount of money the United States spends on health care–17 percent of its gross domestic product, almost double that of its economic peers—you’d think we’re a nation of healthy people.
Not so, according to a new study in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences. In “Educational Attainment and Life Expectancy,” the authors explain that any gain in life expectancy the United States enjoyed in the last few years is now on the decline.
Among peers, the United States showed the second highest mortality rate from non-communicable diseases. It’s also fourth from the bottom on mortality from communicable diseases.Likelihood of celebrating a 50th birthday? The United States came in last among the 17 comparison countries, according to authors Robert M. Kaplan, Michael L. Spittel and Tia L. Zeno, citing an Institute of Medicine study. “The goal is no longer to be first among developed countries; on the contrary, it would be a remarkable accomplishment just to return to average.”
Since investing directly in health care has not resulted in better overall health, Kaplan and colleagues suggest the United States look more closely at other factors that influence life expectancy—specifically educational attainment.
Citing multiple studies and research reports, they make the case that the more education you have, the longer you are likely to live. In one study, after controlling for demographics, health issues and unhealthy behaviors, results show that the lower the education, the higher the risk of death.
The slope gets steeper after high school and holds true with each degree obtained. People with master’s degrees tend to live longer than those with bachelor’s degrees, and people with doctorate degrees, likewise, outlive those with master’s degrees.
No one knows exactly why people with more education tend to live longer, but Kaplan and colleagues offer personality as one possible explanation. People who pursue an education are arguable more likely to engage in other behaviors that promote longevity.
Education also tends to stimulate healthy behaviors; in short: the probability of smoking, being overweight and drinking too much declines with each additional year of education.
Regardless of the reason, the link is there, and the authors point out that it does so in ways that investing directly in health care does not.
Indeed, if we eliminated homicide, automobile deaths and diabetes, we would reduce premature deaths by 122,000, they point out.
But if we ensured everyone without a high school diploma had a life expectancy equal to those with a high school diploma, another 240,000 people could be spared a premature death.