Boy Making Melon Baskets, Evansville, Indiana

Does Low Education Bring an Earlier Death?

A new Mendelian randomization study brings a disciplined look at the question of why social and economic status correlates with lifespan. Such questions are hard to answer with certainty, so this new publication in Nature Human Behavior is quite welcome. Chao-Jie Ye and colleagues found a causal association between education and longevity in populations of European ancestry. Their data gives us reason to believe that low education attainment may indeed have a causal relationship with an earlier death.

Mendelian Insight into Correlation and Causation

The Mendelian randomization technique these researchers employed is a tool for looking beyond mere associations to gain insight into causality. This technique starts with the knowledge that people inherit genes randomly and genes can influence the outcome of interest – in this case, longevity. Thus, with large datasets of genetic, socio-economic, and longevity observations, Ye et al could look at the interaction of social and economic factors with genetic characteristics that should confer a shorter or longer life. In this way, Mendelian randomization can point to factors that have a causal relationship with lifespan.

This rather technical analysis yielded a straightforward conclusion:

“This MR study shows that education exerts a causal impact on human longevity independently of income and occupation, and it outlines mediators including lifestyle factors and chronic diseases underlying the causal pathway. Our findings suggest that education should be given priority when developing health strategies, policies or health-risk surveillance to improve healthy longevity.”

In sum, education, but not income or occupation, seems to have a causal relationship with longevity. With low education, an earlier death is more likely to result from obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, lung cancer, COPD, and breast cancer.

Consistent with “Deaths of Despair” Observations

These findings are consistent with the research of Anne Case and Angus Deaton, who have been writing about rising “deaths of despair” among people with low educational attainment since 2015. Their most recent working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research tells us that the growth in earlier death for people with low education accelerated from 2010 to 2019 and then grew explosively during the pandemic. They write that the growing gaps between people with and without a college degree shows up beyond mortality statistics:

“These gaps, between those with and without a BA, are widening across a range of life
outcomes that we have reason to care about, not just mortality, but also morbidity – including many kinds of pain – as well as in marriage rates, out-of-wedlock childbearing, religious observance, institutional attachments, and in wages and participation in employment.”

Learning, Life, Health, and Wealth

Taken together, the impact of education on mortality and the diminished opportunities for people with limited education tell a compelling story. COVID-19 brought a crisis in education that requires attention. Access to education needs improvement. The gap in prospects for life and health between differing levels of education is too great to ignore.

Click here for the new study by Ye et al and here for the latest working paper by Case and Deaton. For an engaging interview with them, click here.

Boy Making Melon Baskets, Evansville, Indiana; photograph by Lewis Hine / WikiArt

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.


July 3, 2023