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By Willoughby Mariano August 26, 2011

U.S. Surgeon General says less education means higher mortality rates

School is back in session. Having trouble persuading Junior to go to class?

Tell him that if he doesn’t graduate high school, he’s more likely to die.

U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin said as much during an interview on WABE-FM (90.1), as she talked about what she said was the close link between education and health.

"The United States death rate is two-and-a-half times higher for those who do not have a high school education," Benjamin said.

PolitiFact Georgia’s team of reporters was skeptical. Doesn’t that sound like something your mom would say to scare you into behaving? Like, "if you keep making that face, it’ll stick that way"?

We called up the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the Surgeon General’s Office.

Their officials replied with a pile of information. Chief among them was a 2007 report from the National Vital Statistics System, a collection of public health data overseen by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It calculated death rates based on 2004 statistics.

According to this data, the gap was even worse than Benjamin said. People ages 25 through 64 with 13 or more years of education died at the rate of 208.3 per 100,000. The rate for those with fewer than 12 years of education was 667.2, or 3.2 times higher.

University of Colorado at Boulder professor Richard Rogers pointed us to a NVSS report released in 2010 that says Benjamin is closer to the mark. Data from 2007 shows the death rate for those with less than a high school diploma is 529.5, or 2.7 times the rate for those with at least some college, it said.

PolitiFact Georgia also consulted with experts and read studies on the subject. They agreed that Benjamin is correct. Since the 1970s, researchers have been aware that education is closely linked to health.

In fact, much of the increase in life expectancy has taken place among high-education groups.  Life expectancy actually declined for less-educated white women.  

According to a 2008 study, better-educated black men can expect to live more than eight years longer than their less-educated counterparts.

It’s not entirely clear why people with more education tend to live longer lives. Researchers we interviewed said there are likely many reasons.

Those with at least some college are less likely to smoke, be obese, live in dangerous places, or have a host of other characteristics that can shorten their lives, studies show. They have healthier behaviors in part because they have more financial and social resources.

Recent evidence also suggests that cognitive ability helps people make better health decisions, said Adriana Lleras-Muney, a University of California Los Angeles professor who has worked on the problem for about a decade.   
So parents, go ahead. Scare your children into going to school. You won’t be lying. Benjamin earns a True.

Our Sources

WABE-FM (90.1), "America's Drop-Out Crisis and Public Health," Aug. 18, 2011

National Vital Statistics System, "Deaths: Final data for 2007," May 20, 2010

National Vital Statistics System, "Deaths: Final data for 2004," Aug. 21, 2007

Public Library of Science, "Widening of Socioeconomic Inequalities in U.S. Death
Rates, 1993–2001," May 14, 2008

National Bureau of Economic Research, "Socioeconomic Status and Health: Dimensions and Mechanisms," October 2008

Health Affairs, "The Gap Gets Bigger: Changes in Mortality and Life Expectancy, by Education, 1981–2000," March/April 2008

International Handbook of Adult Mortality, 2011

Email interview, Richard Rogers, professor, Department of Sociology, University of Colorado, Aug. 24, 2011

Email interview, Adriana Lleras-Muney, associate professor, Department of Economics, University of California, Los Angeles, Aug. 24, 2011

Email interview, Michael Grossman, distinguished professor of economics, City University of New York Graduate Center, Aug. 24, 2011

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U.S. Surgeon General says less education means higher mortality rates

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