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Mark D. Hayward, Director 305 E. 23rd Street, Stop G1800 78712-1699 • 512-471-5514

PRC Researchers Explore Link between Educational Attainment and Adult Mortality in the United States

Posted: February 10, 2012

The relationship between educational attainment and U.S. adult mortality is one of the most fundamental in social demography. In this newly published paper, former PRC student Jennifer Montez and current PRC faculty members Robert A. Hummer and Mark D. Hayward take a new look at this association and turn up findings that are potentially very important for US social and health policy.  Their paper, "Educational Attainment and Adult Mortality in the United States: A Systematic Analysis of Functional Form," was published in the current issue of Demography.

Abstract

A vast literature has documented the inverse association between educational attainment and U.S. adult mortality risk but given little attention to identifying the optimal functional form of the association. A theoretical explanation of the association hinges on our ability to describe it empirically. Using the 1979–1998 National Longitudinal Mortality Study for non-Hispanic white and black adults aged 25–100 years during the mortality follow-up period (N = 1,008,215), we evaluated 13 functional forms across race-gender-age subgroups to determine which form(s) best captured the association. Results revealed that the preferred functional form includes a linear decline in mortality risk from 0 to 11 years of education, followed by a step-change reduction in mortality risk upon attainment of a high school diploma, at which point mortality risk resumes a linear decline but with a steeper slope than that prior to a high school diploma. The findings provide important clues for theoretical development of explanatory mechanisms: an explanation for the selected functional form may require integrating a credentialist perspective to explain the step-change reduction in mortality risk upon attainment of a high school diploma, with a human capital perspective to explain the linear declines before and after a high school diploma.

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