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

Posted on under Today's research

Sometimes a study in a seemingly unrelated field can throw an interesting light on our working lives. This study is one of those.

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 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 life expectancy on the vertical axis. The curve shows a clear but flattening upward trend in life expectancy with increasing GDP. The curves also shift upwards over time which has been explained by better healthcare.

In 1985 other research suggested instead that lowered mortality resulted from better female education. In their new paper the researchers 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.

They 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.

The researchers point out that better education leads to improved cognition and in turn to better choices for health-related behaviors. 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 the lead author.

The apparent link between health and income 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 health research community, and they matter for everybody in global development and deciding on funding allocations for the different aspects of development,” say the researchers, adding that funding quality education for all around the world should be a much higher priority.

So, what? Research over the past few years (see previous TRs) has shown that the brain is a learning machine and that when we stop learning our system—through dementia and other conditions—prepares to die. We are programmed for lifelong learning. Other research (also in prior TRs) has shown that the desire to learn is one of the four main reasons that people come to work. And yet many—if not most—businesses are busily cutting their L & D budgets as fast as they can. From all the research and also the experience of highly successful businesses that is a great mistake. The drive to learn new things is one of the factors that cause people to flit from job to job giving businesses the headache of unwanted attrition.

One of our clients, Ford Motor Co., has a policy of grading employees partially on what they have taken the time to learn during the year—whether that learning is applicable to their current employment or not. The extra learning—in any field—improves employee cognitive performance, engagement and overall productivity. It also improves health and wellbeing.

What now? It seems that rather than cutting back on learning opportunities, businesses should be ramping them up, if only because they’ll improve their bottom line if they do. Additionally, for a whole variety of reasons, that learning should be in the fields of relationship building and communication since in the future these will be more important than technical learning.

By Dr Bob Murray