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Education - A Longevity Secret

Education and Life Expectancy in Denmark

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Updated July 08, 2008

Between 1994 to 2005, researchers were able to measure improvements in life expectancy in Denmark. What they found was that life expectancy increased by 1.9 years for men and 1.5 years for women. That's good news right?

People with Lower Education Died Younger

It turns out that most of that increase was in people with higher levels of education. Comparing the group with the highest level of education to that of the lowest showed that those with more years of school had larger gains in life expectancy (2.7 years for well-educated men and 2.2 years for well-educated women). This study was done looking at national life expectancy data. Basically, it compared all the people in Denmark and looked at their age at death and education level. But why should education add years to life?

Education Matters to Life Expectancy and Healthy Aging

Why education matters to life expectancy is tough to explain, and no one fully understands this link (yet). Denmark has a socialized medicine system (which is a national healthcare system where the government pays for medical care), so everyone should have equal medical care. So what is it about education that matters? Here are some theories:
  • Health Behaviors: It could be that people who sought out more education have different health risk behaviors. They may be less likely to smoke, drink or become involved in automobile accidents. The data shows that some of this is true, but not enough to explain the differences.
  • Health Knowledge: Knowledge about health and illness (sometimes called health literacy) may be higher in the better educated. When health care gets complicated, the higher educated people may be better able to understand and manage their health conditions. They may also be better able to communicate with healthcare providers.
  • Social Hierarchy: Some studies show that just being lower in the social hierarchy can cause stress. This increase in stress over time may result in health condition like high blood pressure. Researchers have shown this to be true in primate societies and there is pretty good evidence that perceiving yourself lower in the hierarchy can impact the stress levels of humans. Perhaps education is a way that people place themselves in hierarchies.
  • Something Else: None of the above explanations fully explain the impact of education on life expectancy. The truth could be in a combination of the above or in some other factor that we don’t know about yet.

Source:

Bronnum-Hansen H, Baadsgaard M. Increase in social inequality and helped expectancy in Denmark. Scandinavian Journal of public health 2008 January 30 6(1): 44 to 51.

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