Background: Educational disparities in U.S. adult mortality are large and have widened across birth cohorts. We consider three policy relevant scenarios and estimate the mortality attributable to: (1) individuals having less than a high school degree rather than a high school degree, (2) individuals having some college rather than a baccalaureate degree, and (3) individuals having anything less than a baccalaureate degree rather than a baccalaureate degree, using educational disparities specific to the 1925, 1935, and 1945 cohorts.
Methods: We use the National Health Interview Survey data (1986-2004) linked to prospective mortality through 2006 (N=1,008,949), and discrete-time survival models, to estimate education- and cohort-specific mortality rates. We use those mortality rates and data on the 2010 U.S. population from the American Community Survey, to calculate annual attributable mortality estimates.
Results: If adults aged 25-85 in the 2010 U.S. population experienced the educational disparities in mortality observed in the 1945 cohort, 145,243 deaths could be attributed to individuals having less than a high school degree rather than a high school degree, 110,068 deaths could be attributed to individuals having some college rather than a baccalaureate degree, and 554,525 deaths could be attributed to individuals having anything less than a baccalaureate degree rather than a baccalaureate degree. Widening educational disparities between the 1925 and 1945 cohorts result in a doubling of attributable mortality. Mortality attributable to having less than a high school degree is proportionally similar among women and men and among non-Hispanic blacks and whites, and is greater for cardiovascular disease than for cancer.
Conclusions: Mortality attributable to low education is comparable in magnitude to mortality attributable to individuals being current rather than former smokers. Existing research suggests that a substantial part of the association between education and mortality is causal. Thus, policies that increase education could significantly reduce adult mortality.