Education Gap Associated With Higher Death Rates Across Ethnic Groups

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New research suggests that about 215,000 fewer Americans would die each year if they had the same death rates as college graduates.

Whites, African-Americans and Hispanics are all affected by the "educational disparity," with African-Americans affected the most, said Dr. Ahmedin Jemal, lead author of a new study and strategic director for cancer surveillance with the American Cancer Society. "We're trying to communicate that to the general public and policy makers."

The research does not shed light on what it is about education levels -- which indicate socioeconomic class -- that lead to higher death rates in poorer people. Still, Jemal said, it is clear that "we are not doing enough to help the disadvantaged population in the U.S."

According to Jemal, previous research has uncovered the disparity in death rates between rich and poor Americans, and the less and more educated. The purpose of the new study was to examine this relationship by looking at ethnicity and gender, Jemal said.

The study authors looked at death rates among men and women ages 25 to 64 years in 2001. The findings appear in the January issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

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The researchers calculated that 48 percent of the deaths in men and 38 percent of the deaths in women would not have occurred if everyone shared the same death rates as college graduates.

The study also suggests that 161,280 whites, 40,840 African-Americans and 13,162 Hispanics in 2001 would not have died if they had the same death rates as college graduates.

"The educational disparity is not confined to any racial groups or sex," Jamal said. "It's affecting people across the board. That's a powerful message."

Scott Lynch, an associate professor of sociology at Princeton University who is familiar with the study findings, said the association between mortality rates and socioeconomic status "is one of the strongest there is in social science research."

Still, he said, there are many questions about how the two connect. "Overall, this is a booming field of research and has been for a few decades," he said.

As for the new study, he questioned its focus on "unnecessary" deaths.

"If we improved everyone's education by a few years, we would still have inequality in health outcomes, so there is no guarantee that all of these deaths are 'unnecessary' or avoidable," he said. "It's not clear to me that increasing educational attainment among everyone will necessarily reduce health inequality. We have seen educational attainment increase drastically over the last 50 years, but health inequalities attributable to socioeconomic status differences have increased."

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