Education and adult mortality in middle-income countries: Surprising gradients in six nationally-representative longitudinal surveys

SSM Popul Health. 2020 Aug 19:12:100649. doi: 10.1016/j.ssmph.2020.100649. eCollection 2020 Dec.


Background: There are large differences in adult mortality across schooling groups in many high-income countries (HICs). An important open question is whether there are similar gradients in adult mortality in middle-income countries (MICs), where schooling and healthcare quality tends to be lower and health-related behaviors are often not strongly patterned by schooling.

Methods: We present one of the first international-comparative studies on schooling differences in adult mortality across MICs using harmonizedlongitudinal data on adults ages 50+ from China, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa, and South Korea. We use Cox proportional hazards models to estimate differences in the hazard of mortality across schooling groups overall and separately by sex and broad age groups. We also estimate schooling gradients in smoking and body mass index to determine whether risk factor gradients potentially explain mortality patterns.

Results: Only adults with tertiary schooling have a consistent adult mortality advantage compared to those with no schooling. We do not find evidence that individuals with primary schooling have a lower hazard of mortality compared to individuals with no schooling in five of the six countries. The mortality advantage for individuals with secondary schooling is mixed, with evidence of lower mortality relative to those with no schooling in Mexico, South Africa, and South Korea. Gradients in BMI and smoking are inconsistent across countries and unlikely to explain mortality differences.

Conclusions: We find that adult mortality and risk factor gradients in MICs can be much different than the established patterns seen in modern HICs. Our results highlight that adult mortality gradients are not an inevitability and are not found in all populations. Understanding what factors give rise to inequalities in adult mortality and what can be done to minimize gradients while still ensuring continued mortality improvements in MICs is a crucial focus for research and policy.

Keywords: Adult mortality; Developing countries; Education; Longevity; Middle-income countries; Schooling.