Education saves lives. In fact, we could save 145,000 lives every single year if all adults in the United States had at least a high school degree. I know this because I’m a demographer. Demographers study populations. My research focuses on the health of the entire population of the United States. To me, each one of you is one in a million. Well, actually, you’re one in about 320 million people in the US right now.
Doctors and demographers think about health differently. Doctors focus on sick people. If you have cancer, heart disease, broken bones, or bad knees, then you need to see a doctor. Demographers focus on the health of everyone in the population, the sick and the healthy, or as I like to say, the sick and the not yet sick because all of us are going to die someday. Death is always funny.
As a demographer, I try to find ways to improve the health of an entire population, not just those who are already sick. And my research shows that if all adults in the United States had at least a high school degree, we could save 145,000 lives every single year. To put that number in perspective, that’s the number of lives we could save if all current smokers in the United States quit smoking right now.
That’s the number of lives we could save if we eliminated all accidental deaths, including deaths from car crashes, falls, overdoses, and poisonings. That’s the number of lives we could save if we eliminated all suicides and all homicides two and a half times over, every single year. Most of us think that doctors are the first line when it comes to protecting health, but doctors can’t cure what ails us.
Americans already spend two to three times as much on health care as residents of other high-income countries, but we lag behind those countries when it comes to survival. In other words, we pay for better health care than Switzerland, yet we have shorter lives than Slovenia.
The average person sees a doctor for just about two hours per year. That comes out to about seven days total over the course of your entire lifetime. In that short amount of time, your doctor can check your blood pressure or your cholesterol and recommend a new drug to treat your most vexing medical problem. But your doctor already has too little time to help you quit smoking, to encourage you to wear your seat belt, or to treat you for drug and alcohol abuse. And no matter how good your doctor, she simply cannot write you a prescription to eliminate poverty or to build you a safer neighborhood with healthier housing.
Your doctor cannot write you a prescription for a healthier diet and the time to cook, or for the time and motivation to exercise. Your doctor cannot write you a prescription for a less stressful job with more pay, or for cleaner air, or for stronger social connections. So how can education fix these things that doctors can’t? Education is a flexible resource. Let me tell you four ways that education empowers individuals to invest in their own health.
First, education is money. Education leads to better jobs with more pay so you can reduce stress by paying bills on time and purchase safer housing in better neighborhoods. Second, education is self control. Education teaches us the rewards of persistence with difficult and time-consuming tasks, including learning algebra and reading Shakespeare, or quitting smoking and starting a new diet or exercise regimen. Third, education is knowledge, knowledge about how to avoid health risks where possible, and how to manage those risks if we can’t avoid them. And finally, education is connection.
People with more education have friends and coworkers who also have more education and who also value health, and who can support you in your efforts to be healthy. Simply put, education makes health easier. We hear stories about health every day – stories that promise more than they could ever hope to deliver. Every day we hear stories about some new miracle cure that works for three mice in some laboratory, and that might work for you someday, but you better have the right health insurance, and you better have a doctor who’s willing to inject you with some unproven new treatment. You know, it wouldn’t hurt to cross your fingers.
Every day, we see advertisements for drugs that show attractive, middle-aged people walking on the beach, or kayaking, and taking little blue pills and disappearing to somewhere off-screen. Who knows what they’re doing. These drugs promise us happier, healthier lives, but they come with a list of side-effects a mile long. We also see stories about failing schools every day. We see stories about schools that are broke, that have leaky roofs, and that have failing test scores.
We hear stories about schools that don’t have enough teachers, or that have too many teachers who just don’t care enough. When you walk by a failing school, you might think it looks like a prison, with the cages on the windows and the guards at the door. You might even worry about the lost creativity when art, and music, and recess are cancelled. That’s not what I see.
When I walk by a failing school, I see a body count. I see 145,000 premature deaths every single year. I wish I had an easy answer, but I don’t. I don’t have a quick fix. I can’t give you a new miracle cure. Instead, I want you to leave here today with a new story, a story about how we let too many children slip through the cracks where they’ll end up with low-paying jobs, and even worse, shorter lives.