Education, not income, the best predictor of a long life

April 16, 2018, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis
Curve showing the relationship between income and life expectancy in 1970, 1990 and 2010. Credit: Lutz/Kebede

Rising income and the subsequent improved standards of living have long been thought to be the most important factors contributing to a long and healthy life. However, new research from Wolfgang Lutz and Endale Kebede, from IIASA and the Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU) has shown that instead, the level of education a person has is a much better predictor of life expectancy.

In 1975, Samuel Preston developed the Preston Curve, which plotted the GDP per person on the horizontal axis against on the vertical axis. The shows a clear but flattening upward trend in expectancy with increasing GDP. The curves also shift upwards over time which has been explained by better healthcare.

In 1985, John Caldwell and Pat Caldwell suggested instead that lowered mortality resulted from better female . In their new paper, Lutz and Kebede used global data from 174 countries from 1970-2015 to test the two hypotheses. Whether income or education is more important for improving health and life expectancy is an important question for policymakers deciding where to direct funding.

Lutz and Kebede also plotted life expectancy against the mean years of schooling of the adult population. The curve created is much more linear, suggesting that education is a much better predictor. There is no upward shift of the curve requiring explanation by other factors. Data was subject to multivariate analyses to validate the findings. The same link was found when the curves were adjusted for child mortality.

Curve showing the relationship between education and life expectancy in 1970, 1990 and 2010 Credit: Lutz/Kebede

The researchers point out that better education leads to improved cognition and in turn to better choices for health-related behaviours. Recent decades have seen a shift in the disease burden from infectious to chronic diseases, the latter of which are largely lifestyle-related. As time goes on, the link between education and better health choices, and therefore life expectancy, will become even more apparent.

"This paper is more radical than previous analyses in terms of challenging the ubiquitous view that income and medical interventions are the main drivers of health. It even shows that the empirical association between income and health is largely spurious," says Lutz.

Previous lines of research at the Wittgenstein Centre, a collaboration between IIASA, WU and the Vienna Institute of Demography, have emphasised the importance of improving education for poverty eradication and economic growth, as well as the ability to adapt to climate change. These findings further back up the call for improved access to education.

The apparent link between health and found by Preston can be explained by the fact that better education results in both better health and higher incomes.

"The findings matter for the entire global research community, and they matter for everybody in global development and deciding on funding allocations for the different aspects of development," says Lutz, adding that funding quality education for all around the world should be a much higher priority.

Explore further: Smoking reduces increase in life expectancy for less educated women

More information: Wolfgang Lutz et al, Education and Health: Redrawing the Preston Curve, Population and Development Review (2018). DOI: 10.1111/padr.12141

Related Stories

Smoking reduces increase in life expectancy for less educated women

December 11, 2017
Life expectancy in Sweden has risen steadily during the last few decades for most groups. One exception is women whose highest educational level is compulsory school. This is mostly because of smoking, says a new dissertation ...

A country's level of education correlates well with life expectancy at birth

June 7, 2016
The level of education in a given country correlates well with life expectancy at birth, according to a new study published in the International Journal of Innovation and Learning. The researchers suggest that educating the ...

Improvements in mortality rates are slowed by rise in obesity in the United States

January 15, 2018
With countless medical advances and efforts to curb smoking, one might expect that life expectancy in the United States would improve. Yet according to recent studies, there's been a reduction in the rate of improvement in ...

Our calculator will guess how many healthy years of life you have left

October 17, 2017
As the old saying goes, the only things certain in life are death and taxes. While death is inevitable, the quality of life you experience until death is often within an individual's control.

Recommended for you

Hearing aids linked to fewer hospital and ER visits by older adults

April 26, 2018
They cost thousands of dollars, and insurance almost never covers them. But hearing aids may hold the potential to cut older adults' visits to the hospital or emergency room, according to a new study.

Hair products for Black women contain mix of hazardous ingredients

April 25, 2018
A new report published today in the journal Environmental Research shows that Black women are potentially exposed to dozens of hazardous chemicals through the hair products they use.

Consuming protein supplements with meals may work better for weight control

April 25, 2018
A new systematic review of available evidence appearing in Nutrition Reviews indicates that consuming protein supplements with meals may be more effective at promoting weight control than consuming supplements between meals ...

Mediterranean diet boosts beneficial bacteria

April 25, 2018
Here's another reason to eat a Mediterranean-type diet: It's good for your gut.

Potential for sun damage should be carefully balanced with need for vitamin D in children, say scientists

April 24, 2018
Scientists at King's College London are encouraging parents and carers to ensure even more rigorous protection of children against the harmful effects of the sun. The comments follow a study which has suggested that children ...

Millennials aren't getting the message about sun safety and the dangers of tanning

April 24, 2018
Many millennials lack knowledge about the importance of sunscreen and continue to tan outdoors in part because of low self-esteem and high rates of narcissism that fuel addictive tanning behavior, a new study from Oregon ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.