When you think about living a long, healthy life, what comes to mind? A high paying job? Access to state-of-the-art healthcare? Interestingly, while these factors do play a role, they may not be the prime contributors we thought they were. Enter the often-underestimated role of education. It’s not just the ticket to a well-paying job—it may also be the key to a longer and healthier life.
1. The Age-Old Question – Wealth or Wisdom for Longevity?
The connection between income and longevity has been a long-standing debate. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Higher income often equates to better standards of living, improved healthcare, and healthier food options—all known to boost life expectancy. However, recent research by Wolfgang Lutz and Endale Kebede from IIASA and the Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU) have set the stage for a surprising revelation: your level of education may be a more accurate predictor of your lifespan than your income.
2. Tracking the Twin Trails
Back in 1975, Samuel Preston made waves with his famous “Preston Curve”. This curve plotted GDP per person against life expectancy, and an upward trend became apparent. As GDP increased, so did life expectancy, albeit at a flattening rate over time. This was generally chalked up to advancements in healthcare that often accompanied increased GDP.
However, a decade later in 1985, John Caldwell and Pat Caldwell turned heads when they proposed a different idea. They suggested that reduced mortality rates were a result of better female education.
3. The Reversal of Roles – From Wealth to Wisdom
In their recent study, Lutz and Kebede picked up the threads of this idea and tested it with global data from 174 countries over 45 years (1970-2015). They plotted life expectancy against the average years of schooling among adults. The resulting curve painted a vivid picture: a much more linear relationship, with no signs of flattening or unexplained shifts. This finding seemed to point in a clear direction: education is a far better predictor of life expectancy than income.
4. Is Income Irrelevant?
While it’s clear that education is linked with life expectancy, you might wonder, “What about income? Doesn’t wealth influence health and, subsequently, longevity?” While it’s true that income often allows for better healthcare and nutrition, Lutz and Kebede’s study provides an intriguing perspective.
The researchers suggest that the connection between health and income found in Preston’s work can be explained by the impact of better education on both health and income. In essence, education is a double-edged sword: it boosts income and promotes healthier lifestyle choices.
5. Why Education Matters
So, how does education influence health and life expectancy? It all boils down to cognition and decision-making. Better education improves cognitive abilities, which in turn, lead to healthier choices. Think about the difference between smoking and not smoking, between indulging in fast food or preparing a balanced meal at home, between adopting an active lifestyle or leading a sedentary one. Education often provides the knowledge and decision-making skills required to choose the healthier option.
In recent years, the burden of disease has shifted from infectious to chronic diseases, which are largely influenced by lifestyle choices. As this trend continues, the link between education, health choices, and life expectancy is likely to become even more pronounced.
6. A Global Game Changer
This research isn’t just an academic exploration—it’s a call to action. At the Wittgenstein Centre, a collaborative initiative between IIASA, WU and the Vienna Institute of Demography, researchers have already been underlining the significance of improving education for poverty eradication, economic growth, and climate change adaptation. This study further strengthens their stand.
Access to quality education for everyone, everywhere, should be a high priority. Not only does it offer the promise of economic prosperity, but it also holds the potential for longer, healthier lives. As Lutz puts it, the findings are vital for “everybody in global development and deciding on funding allocations for the different aspects of development.”
7. Your Next Step
This shift in perspective presents a remarkable opportunity. It allows us to reevaluate the investments we’re making, both on a personal and societal level. Are we putting enough emphasis on education—on understanding nutrition, physical activity, mental health, and healthcare practices?
If longevity and health are what we desire, then perhaps it’s time to shift our focus. Instead of solely aspiring for wealth, let’s prioritize wisdom. Let’s embrace the power of education. After all, it seems that the age-old saying was right: knowledge really is power. In this case, the power to live a longer, healthier life.
Wolfgang Lutz, Endale Kebede. Education and Health: Redrawing the Preston Curve. Population and Development Review, 2018; Link