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Mark Hayward, of the University of Texas at Austin, reported to Dondena in March that his research team has uncovered a stunning drop in mortality that follows higher education and that doesn’t seem to end. It provides insight, he says, into how education works in people’s lives. It lengthens them, we have known, but how and why isn’t completely clear yet.

            Hayward is one of the first sociologists or demographers to take seriously the idea of integrating biological markers into their work. Once blasphemous to suggest that social problems didn’t always have social solutions, the sell is becoming easier and opening the door to all sorts of new areas in which social scientists can study.

 

What’s the three-minute elevator speech on the talk you’re giving today?

My talk is trying to convince people that education is fundamentally changing the way in which our lives are working and the resources we bring to bear, and the fact that we’re now seeing advanced education having an effect on longevity that we’ve never seen before.

For a long time, we actually didn’t know how education worked. The idea usually is, I get a degree, that gives me access to good jobs, and I get job rewards. It basically follows that nothing really improves in my health unless I get that degree. It’s really a labor market certification argument. We looked back at data for the U.S. in 1960 and it was pretty much that way. In fact, mortality didn’t really change with each additional year of education until you got a college degree, and then that college degree mattered in a big way. By 1985, college degrees still mattered, but high school mattered, too. It was like a step function. If you think about mortality rates, they are pretty constant up to Grade 12; you graduate, they drop, they’re constant up to about Grade 16, then they drop again. By the year 2000, the whole ballgame had changed. There was a gradual drop in mortality, not flat, but a gradual drop up to Grade 12, a big drop at Grade 12, and then something that really surprised us that we weren’t anticipating: An absolute race to the bottom in terms of lower mortality for each additional year of education—13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 years of education, and there was no floor. So literally each additional year of education led to lower mortality, and the whole thing, the whole functional form, was linear, just falling like a rock, after Grade 12.

            Of course that means my graduate students think that if they go to school they’ll live forever.

 

So we should all be life-long learners!

Exactly! Probably part of the issue is that what’s happening, at least in the U.S., is that education is becoming such a valuable resource so fast and in so many ways. That’s why it’s linear and dropping. We’re not in any sort of equilibrium right now. Times are changing and they’re changing fast. So certainly one of the things to note in this dose-response relationship between education and mortality is that this is probably the strongest proof in observational data that it’s causal. And, more than that, it’s working in every way you can think possible. Yes, it’s money, it’s economic security, it’s human agency, it’s better cognitive function, it’s being more proactive about your health behaviors, it’s the ability to make decisions. It’s even changing our brains and our hormonal composition in ways that we are still trying to figure out. We can handle stress, we can avoid stress better, and they have less pernicious effects on us.

 

What is your current research looking like right now, what are you doing that you’re most excited about?

In the bigger picture, I’ve been working for quite a while on the question, Does your body forget? What does it remember and from when? It is about life course exposures and experiences all the way from in utero through childhood through adolescence and through adulthood.

 

So you’re talking like muscle memory? You pick up running again after several years and you get right back into it, or how you never forget how to ride a bike?

It’s exactly that. Suppose you have childhood trauma, childhood stressors. Those stressors get under the skin and affect the biological processes in ways that ultimately can manifest themselves as certain diseases later in life. People are at greater risk. So imagine, when we’re trying to develop our children we’re trying to give them a stock of physical health. We’re trying to give them cognitive capacity and abilities, right? So as parents, we’re inputting and inputting and inputting as much as we can. Those of us that are advantaged, we input a lot into our children. Truly disadvantaged people can’t input as much. So you can already see developmentally, that by the time people get to adulthood, whenever that may be, there are disadvantages and inequities built into physical capacity and cognitive capacity. And then aging starts. The withering away of those capacities. So when you get out into the older ages, that inequality that we see out there in terms of disease and cognitive performance and so forth is a combination of both the developmental stage of life and the aging stage of life. My work is really about integrating developmental and aging perspectives to understand diversity out there later on.

            Another thing I’m interested in is looking at this question about education and its operation on health across different societies. We have really great data for the United States. There’s some indication that these processes may be happening in Europe, but we really don’t have the quality data that we need to test this idea. Remember, the reason we have education working the way it does on mortality in the U.S. is not that there’s something inherent about education, but we have an environment that’s made education so much more important now than ever before in providing people with resources that allow them to garner health advantages. Do we see the same kinds of exogenous conditions in different countries that allow education or make education such a valuable resource? Some places probably yes, some places probably no. More than that, is the United States in some ways on the vanguard of this? And will Europe be seeing these kinds of changes in the future and will Japan be seeing these kinds of changes in the future? So it’s really looking at a comparative approach to understand the ways in which education, in combination with other factors in society, are altering people’s health chances.

 

What’s not going on in demography/sociology/social sciences today that ought to be? What is still left to be explored?

The frustration I have with much of social science is that we’ve side-stepped biology in a way. We need to be better biologists and neurologists.

 

How are people going to do this?

Demography has been the avenue through which we’ve seen this collaboration between the biomedical and the social sciences. It’s been the avenue partially because we’re catholic in terms of theory and we’re highly quantitative and we’re interested in measurement. And we have an interesting model that we bring to bear on how we would characterize population health.

            Increasingly, our graduate students are being trained in the biological sciences. My graduate students are going on to do post-docs where they’re training heavily in epidemiology. So my students who are at Harvard and Columbia have had a strong dose of epidemiology while they’re there. We have post-doc programs that are set up now nationally that are specifically geared toward doing this kind of thing. I’m a member of the National Advisory Committee for the Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholars program. This is designed to bring people with either a social science perspective and layer on a sophisticated understanding of population health perspectives, or bring in the biomedical types and laying on a stronger social science perspective. All so that we can tackle population health problems knowing that the influences that are affecting a population’s health are, literally, from cells to society. And even though I might not be absolutely conversant in a particular kind of biological process, I should be informed about it to find really excellent collaborators to do this kind of work. I collaborate mercilessly with epidemiologists. It makes my work as a social scientist better. Even if I don’t have biological measures in my models, I’m thinking biologically about how these kinds of social processes get under the skin and ultimately affect these outcomes.

 

Is this a tough sell?

It’s a less tough sell now than it was 15 years ago when we started. Maybe it’s not even that long ago. I published a paper in 2001 that made the argument that childhood health could have permanent and long-lasting effects that altered disease risk later on in life. When I gave this talk in sociology departments they absolutely hated this talk. The reason they hated it was that none of the social variables explained these childhood health effects. And that was quite frustrating to sociologists. They thought that ultimately it would be the social variable or behavior that would be explaining these outcomes. And the reality of it was that these major health events in children’s lives have physiological scarring consequences, and changed the set points and basic biological functioning.            So there’s a biological world that we should pay attention to as well as a social world, and we should be articulating carefully how those things are working with each other.

            The one area that if I had to push people to think about it I would, is neuroscience. Helping us understand learning, behaviors, emotion regulation, a variety of things. More of a neuroscience perspective would help us in how we integrate with each other, how we form close social relationships or don’t, how we learn, our ambitions. That would be fascinating. And I think it’s coming.

 

You leave Milano today and what’s the next exciting academic event on your calendar?

I’m going to the PAA meetings. What PAA is forcing me to do is that I have to develop my own perspective on population health because I’ve been asked to participate in a thematic session, saying, basically, where have we come from and where are we going? I’m going to have to get my ideas better organized than they are right now for that session.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last updated 10 December 2016 - 05:39:12