More Education Is What Makes People Live Longer, Not More Money

The title of this post is identical the title of an article by Debora MacKenzie in the News & Technology section of the 28 April 2018 issue of the New Scientist. The latest research suggests that education, not money, plays a bigger role in extending lifespan.

In 1975, economists plotted life expectancies agains countries’ wealth, and concluded that wealth increases longevity. This appeared to be self-evident as everything people need to be healthy, from food to medical care, costs money.

However, subsequent research found data that didn’t always fit that theory. Economics upturns didn’t always mean longer lives. However, in the 1980s research found that gains in literacy were associated with greater increases in life expectancy than those related to gains in wealth. Moreover, the more-educated people in any country tend to live longer than their less-educated compatriots. But since such people also tend to be wealthier, it as been difficult to figure out which factor is increasing lifespan.

Wolfgang Lutz and Endale Kebede of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria have managed to untangle the pieces of the puzzle by compiling average data on GDP per person, lifespans, and years of education from 174 countries, dating from 1970 to 2010. They did find that wealth correlated with longevity. But the correlation between longevity and years of schooling was closer, with a direct relationship that didn’t change over time.

When Lutz and Kebede put both factors into the same mathematical model, they found that differences in education closely predicted differences in life expectancy, whereas changes in wealth barely mattered (“Population and Development Review”,
doi.org/cnm6).

Education also tends to lead to more wealth, which is why wealth and longevity are also correlated. But what Lutz says is important is that wealth doesn’t seen to be driving longevity, both are driven by education.

Lutz argues that extreme examples are telling. “Cuba is dead poor, but has a higher life expectancy than the United States because it is well-educated. Meanwhile, in oil rich, but poorly educated Equatorial Guinea, people rarely reach 60.

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