Americans are living longer nowadays for a number of reasons, but many studies show a strong correlation between life expectancy and education. In fact, the average life expectancy in America these days is higher than any other period in history and is projected to soar by 2050. Similarly, the percentage of people aged 65 and older with a bachelor's degree significantly increased from 1950 to 2003. So how exactly is education helping us live longer?
It has a lot to do with significant advances in health care, but studies show that the people with better health care tend to be educated. They also usually have better jobs with higher incomes and access to better healthcare coverage than uneducated people.
But you actually don't need to finish college to increase your lifespan – a recent Harvard Medical School study found that people with more than 12 years of formal education (even if it's only 1 year of college) live 18 months longer than those with fewer years of schooling. And it all comes down to the fact that the more education you have, the less likely you are to smoke. Only 10% of adults with an undergraduate degree smoke, while 35% of adults with a high school education or less do. So college, in turn, decreases the amount of deaths from cancer and heart disease.
In college, people also have to learn to be self-disciplined and organized, which are characteristics of people with a significantly lower risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. Focusing on a task requires brainpower, and the more brainpower you use, the less likely you are to develop the disease. Learning languages could also help in that department – people who learn a second language are diagnosed with Alzheimer's and dementia later in life than those who only speak one. And it's never too late to start – learning a new language even after middle age can slow the onset of dementia because it keeps your brain active.
Being educated can also have a great social impact on you. Going to college usually affects your social network and can lead to better interpersonal relationships. Knowing you have someone you can count on, someone you can talk to without being judged, lowers your stress level. People who are constantly stressed tend to have weaker immunity, with cells that age faster. This chronic stress can shorten lifespan by 4 to 8 years. Now, that doesn't mean the only way to build strong, meaningful friendships is through college. Statistically speaking, however, people with higher education tend to have more social support.
Another factor, globally, has to do with women's education. In the developing world especially, there has been a major increase in the percentage of literacy among young people. In Nepal, 77.6% more girls are literate than they were in 1981. Back then, the average life expectancy for Nepalese citizens was about 45, which has now risen substantially due to a large decrease in maternal and child mortality. Every extra year a mother goes to school reduces the probability of infant mortality by five to ten percent. In fact, the global increase in women's education over the past 40 years has prevented more than four million children from dying.
Health benefits are not something often considered when it comes to education policy, but by improving education, we improve health. Education breeds healthier behavior, higher incomes, stronger brainpower, and more meaningful social connections – all things that can help us live well into the triple digits. In a sense, education saves lives.