Monday, September 3, 2012

Education and Longevity

Behavior has consequences.  This seems straightforward enough, but some people seem surprised at the connection.  When they discover it, they ignore the behavioral implications, recommending instead institutional or policy changes.  Around here we don’t ignore the behavioral aspects. 

This news article summarizes research sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on an Aging Society and published in Health Affairs.  The primary finding is that education may be the most powerful variable when it comes to life expectancy.  People with at least a college education, on average, outlive people with less than a high school education by several years.  In terms of average life expectancy only a few years is considered significant.  It goes on to say, "Education exerts its direct beneficial effects on health through the adoption of healthier lifestyles, better ability to cope with stress, and more effective management of chronic diseases. However, the indirect effects of education through access to more privileged social position, better-paying jobs, and higher income are also profound."

The research also breaks out differences by race, but that subject is not of interest here.  Race is not a behavior, but choosing to stay in school is.  Besides, when they isolate the data by race the findings are the same, more education correlates with longer life expectancy.  Since the research focuses on level of education and not necessarily quality of education, a free public education system makes completing or not completing high school a voluntary choice.

To relate this choice to the behavioral dimensions, we ask:  strength in which dimensions makes that choice more likely?  One is discipline:  the same discipline necessary to show up for work on time, complete job assignments, stick to a task, keep physically fit and save for emergencies or retirement (reducing stress).  This could very well be an underlying factor.  Students who don’t have the discipline to finish high school could be less likely to practice other healthy habits in later life.  Can they learn discipline before it’s too late, before dropping out?

Since these are children, they also need supervision by responsible adults.  Parental responsibility to take their children’s health and education seriously is a topic I have addressed before (June 9, 2011 and June 18, 2012).  Just one week ago I suggested that parents take a "sincere interest in the child's education."

One characteristic of K-12 education highlighted in this fact sheet from Michigan is “parents of high-achieving students set higher standards.” They go on to say:  "Decades of research show that when parents are involved students have: 
  • ·      Higher grades, test scores, and graduation rates
  • ·      Better school attendance
  • ·      Increased motivation, better self-esteem
  • ·      Lower rates of suspension
  • ·      Decreased use of drugs and alcohol
  • ·      Fewer instances of violent behavior"

Obviously more highly educated people will tend to get better jobs, higher pay, and lead healthier life styles.  It should be approached not as a policy issue, but as a matter of behavior.  To live longer healthier lives, students' discipline must be encouraged and parents must be more responsibly involved in their education.

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