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Longer lifespan and slower aging strongly linked to higher education

Pivotal research has discovered that achieving higher education levels markedly slows down the biological aging process and extends lifespan.

Conducted by the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and The Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center, this significant study utilizes the comprehensive data of the esteemed Framingham Heart Study.

Initiated in 1948, this long-standing observational study now spans across three generations, providing invaluable insights into the health and lifespan impacts of education over time.

Education: A Gateway to Longer Lifespan

The core of this analysis lies in its novel approach to understanding the relationship between educational mobility — that is, achieving a higher level of education than one’s parents — and its effects on the pace of aging and mortality rates.

Daniel Belsky, PhD, an associate professor of Epidemiology at Columbia Mailman School and the Aging Center and senior author of the study, articulates the significance of linking educational attainment with healthy longevity.

He highlights the challenges in unraveling how education influences lifespan and posits that enhancing educational attainment may be a key to promoting a healthier, longer life.

“We’ve known for a long time that people who have higher levels of education tend to live longer lives. But there are a bunch of challenges in figuring out how that happens and, critically, whether interventions to promote educational attainment will contribute to healthy longevity,” said Belsky.

Behind the Science: Measuring the Pace of Aging

To quantify the pace of aging, the team utilized the DunedinPACE epigenetic clock, a cutting-edge tool developed by Columbia researchers and their colleagues.

This algorithm measures biological aging through DNA methylation marks in white blood cells, offering a “speedometer” for how swiftly or slowly a person is aging.

According to their findings, an additional two years of education can slow the pace of aging by two to three percent, equating to about a 10 percent reduction in mortality risk and longer lifespan.

The study meticulously analyzed data from 14,106 participants across three generations of the Framingham Heart Study.

By comparing educational attainment and biological aging data, including a subset of 3,101 participants for whom detailed educational mobility and aging metrics were available, the researchers uncovered compelling evidence of education’s protective effects against rapid aging and premature death.

Impact of Education on Life Span

A particularly innovative aspect of this research was its method to control for familial socio-economic differences that could skew results.

Gloria Graf, a PhD candidate in the Department of Epidemiology and the study’s first author, explained the importance of focusing on educational mobility and sibling comparisons to isolate education’s true effects.

“A key confound in studies like these is that people with different levels of education tend to come from families with different educational backgrounds and different levels of other resources,” explained Graf. 

“To address these confounds, we focused on educational mobility, how much more (or less) education a person completed relative to their parents, and sibling differences in educational attainment — how much more (or less) education a person completed relative to their siblings. These study designs control for differences between families and allow us to isolate the effects of education.” 

The researchers found that individuals with upward educational mobility exhibited slower aging processes and a reduced risk of death, with this educational advantage accounting for up to half of the observed mortality gradient.

This pattern was consistent across generations and within families, underscoring the robust association between educational attainment and biological aging.

Future Directions and Experimental Evidence

The study concludes with a call for further experimental research to validate these findings. Both Graf and Belsky emphasize the potential of interventions aimed at increasing educational attainment to decelerate biological aging and extend life expectancy.

“Our findings support the hypothesis that interventions to promote educational attainment will slow the pace of biological aging and promote longevity,” noted Graf.

“Ultimately, experimental evidence is needed to confirm our findings,” added Belsky. “Epigenetic clocks like DunedinPace have potential to enhance such experimental studies by providing an outcome that can reflect impacts of education on healthy aging well before the onset of disease and disability in later life.” 

“We found that upward educational mobility was associated both with a slower pace of aging and decreased risk of death,” said Graf. “In fact, up to half of the educational gradient in mortality we observed was explained by healthier aging trajectories among better-educated participants.”

The use of epigenetic clocks like DunedinPACE in future studies could significantly advance our understanding of education’s role in promoting healthy aging, offering a promising avenue for public health strategies aimed at increasing longevity through education.

Education: The Key to a Longer, Healthier Lifespan

In summary, this fascinating and important research from Columbia University underscores the profound impact that higher educational attainment has on slowing biological aging and extending lifespan.

By meticulously analyzing data from the Framingham Heart Study, the study highlights education’s role beyond its socio-economic benefits and calls for public health interventions aimed at promoting educational achievement as a strategy for healthier, longer lives.

With these findings, the need for further experimental studies becomes even more crucial, promising the potential of educational policies to serve as pivotal tools in enhancing the well-being and longevity of future generations.

The full study was published in the journal JAMA Network Open.


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