Get Educated and Live Longer
June 12th, 2012 by Dr. Bruce Johnson
Going to college to earn a degree has been a common choice for students who are interested in career development and advancement. Over the past few years the value of earning a degree has been called into question as the number of jobs or career options has been limited or restricted, which is a result of a challenging economy. Yet most students know that entering the workplace without a college education means their options would be even fewer. Now there is growing evidence that involvement in the formal learning process has another potential benefit, one that can offer a greater long-term return, and it is an increased life expectancy.
So what is the connection between learning and life expectancy? The process of learning is transformative in nature. Students learn higher order thinking skills and knowledge acquisition methods, which causes them to become lifelong learners. Based upon recent studies and research in the United States and across the globe, this increased mental awareness and activity also prompts improved concern for well-being. As a result, researchers have concluded that students’ involvement in a formal learning environment helps create positive behavioral changes that are long-lasting and life changing.
International Confirmation of Educational Benefits
In the New York Times article, A Surprising Secret to a Long Life: Stay in School, it indicated that researchers have linked education to “longer lives in every country where it has been studied,” and “it is more important than race; it obliterates any effects of income.” To better understand how widespread this issue has been researched, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) noted that “studies show that educated individuals live longer, participate more actively in politics and in the community where they live, commit fewer crimes and rely less on social assistance.” The OECD began in 1960 and now has 34 member countries from North and South America to Europe and the Asia-Pacific region.
Within these OECD member countries it has been found that overall, “men with university-level degrees are 18% more likely to find jobs than those with only a secondary school diploma, and women are 32% more likely.” In addition to finding employment opportunities, it has also been found that “lifetime earnings also increase with each level of education attained.” The United States is an OECD member country and its educational outcomes are included in these findings.
In other research conducted by the Centre of Health Equity Studies and the Swedish Institute for Social Research, it was concluded that “people who are educated for at least nine years have a lower mortality rate after the age of 40 than those who study for eight years or less.” This was based upon a study of 1.2 million Swedish people that examined a possible connection between life expectancy and education. The researchers for this study found that “those exposed to an additional year of education adopted a more positive outlook on life during their ninth year of education, meaning they were more likely to look after their health and wellbeing.” Lead researcher Anton Lager, summed up the study results by stating that “if your life is a little better, you take a little better care of yourself.”
Related Research in the United States
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics recently released a report that aligns with the international findings. The CDC report findings indicated that “college graduates tend to live, on the whole, nine years longer than those who’ve only graduates from high school.” The University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute conducted a study sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (an organization devoted to promoting the health of Americans), which explored the connection between educational attainment and life expectancy.
The report presented by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, County Health Rankings, examined educational factors to determine which had the greatest impact on the overall health of the American population and found that the “years of formal education had the strongest correlation with health and is thought to be related to the work and economic opportunities from more years of education, the psychological resources available to more educated individuals, and a healthier lifestyle.” Researchers for this study examined over 3,000 counties nationwide.
These findings further confirmed results of a study by Harvard Medical School and Harvard University that was published in 2008, which found that “individuals with more than 12 years of education have significantly longer life expectancy than those who never went beyond high school.” Adults with advanced education increased their life expectancy by 1.5 years over those adults with a high school diploma or less. Although as noted by clinical dietitian Timi Gustafson RD, LDN, “going to college by itself, of course, does not automatically make you live longer; but the study does suggest that better education often leads to better lifestyle choices.”
Learning and Living Longer – The Connection
Throughout all of the research that found a connection between learning and an extended life expectancy, a consistent theme has emerged. It has been suggested that individual behavioral changes that occur as a result of acquiring advanced education leads to an improved life expectancy. Amy Bernstein, a health services researcher for the National Center for Health Statistics, explained that “highly educated people tend to have healthier behaviors, avoid unhealthy ones and have more access to medical care when they need it,” and “all of these factors are associated with better health.”
Wray Herbert, author of On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind's Hard-Wired Habits, examined this issue further and posed a question: “What's going on in the mind, at the basic cognitive level, that gives rise to lasting life skills?” Herbert believes that an alternative explanation for extended life expectancy is that “formal schooling teaches people to think – not about any health issue in particular but simply to think – and that these cognitive skills endure into adulthood and lead to healthier life choices.” He relates the process of formal learning to cognitive skills that are needed for making sound decisions, such as self-control, reasoning, and focused attention.
From my experience as an educator, I have found that formal learning, or learning within a classroom environment, is transformative. While students are acquiring subject matter knowledge they are also being transformed, sometimes in a subtle or subconscious manner. Students utilize a cognitive process that prompts them to explore their thoughts, feelings, belief systems, and underlying assumptions. The outcome of transformative learning is a new self-awareness, the development of new life perspectives, and an enhanced motivation to create personal change. This process of retrospection and transformation begins in the classroom and continues throughout their lives as lifelong learning.
As students work on their academic goals they are also likely to improve their life expectancy over time because of the way in which formal education promotes higher order thinking and lifelong learning. It’s not about the amount or type of education received but the transformative nature of learning that prompts long-lasting changes. Of course that’s not to say that the acquisition of a degree will guarantee sound decisions and behaviors throughout your lifetime; however, it does mean that the more you continue to advance your thinking or the more involved you are in expanding your capacity to learn, the more likely you will make better choices about your health and well-being.
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