Background: Low educational attainment is a marker of socioeconomic status that correlates strongly with higher death rates from many conditions. No previous studies have analyzed national data to measure the number of deaths associated with lower education among working-aged adults (25-64 years) by race or ethnicity. Furthermore, no previous studies have examined comprehensively the relationship of education to cause-specific and all-cause mortality in the three largest racial or ethnic groups in the United States using national data.
Methods: Age-standardized, race/ethnicity-specific death rates from all causes and the 15 leading causes were measured among men and women aged 25-64 years by level of education based on U.S. national mortality data in 2001. The total number of deaths that potentially could be avoided among people aged 25-64 years was estimated by applying the mortality rates among college graduates (within each 5-year category of age, gender, and race/ethnicity) to each of the less-educated subpopulations. All analyses were performed in 2007.
Results: Nearly half (48%) of all deaths among men aged 25-64 years (white, black, and Hispanic), and 38% of all deaths in women would not have occurred in this age range if all segments of the population experienced the death rates of college graduates. Black men and women had the highest death rates from all causes combined and from many specific causes at nearly all levels of education, and the largest average life years lost before age 65 years. However, the total number of deaths associated with low education status was not confined to any single racial group. About 161,280 deaths in whites, 40,840 deaths in blacks, and 13,162 deaths in Hispanics in this age range were associated with educational disparity.
Conclusions: Potentially avoidable factors associated with lower educational status account for almost half of all deaths among working-aged adults in the U.S.; these deaths are not confined to any single racial or ethnic group. These findings highlight the need for greater attention to social determinants of health.