The Link Between Education and Longevity
larGe decliNeS iN
U.S. MorTaliTy raTeS
in the past century have
translated into sizable
increases in the survival of
Americans at all ages. While
mortality declined mostly
among children in the first
part of the 20th century,
in the second half of the
century mortality declines
were concentrated at older
ages. The probability of a
65-year-old surviving to age
85, for example, doubled
between 1970 and 2005,
from approximately 0.2 in
1970 to about 0.4 in 2005.
But while overall survival
into old age has increased,
there are important
mortality differentials for
subgroups of the population.
Socioeconomic is a common source of variation in health and survival in the U.S.
population. But socioeconomic status is a complex concept that attempts to capture
a set of individual experiences over the life cycle. To understand variations in health
and mortality by socioeconomic status, researchers use proxy indicators that presumably influence longevity. In the United States, income/wealth, occupation, and level of
education are the most common socioeconomic indicators. The preferred measure for
studying socioeconomic differentials in health and mortality at older ages, however,
is education. Because education remains fixed at older ages, it allows researchers
to assume that the relationship between socioeconomic status and health goes from
education to health, instead of in the other direction.
The same argument can’t be made for income/wealth and for occupation. At older
ages, for example, income/wealth reflects resource accumulation over the entire life
cycle—a factor that is highly dependent on the individual’s health status. A disease or
health condition may cause the individual to use savings to pay for treatment. As a result,
it’s not clear in which direction the link between income/wealth and health flows. In a
similar manner, occupation is not a good indicator of longevity at older ages because most
people are retired and out of the job market.