Sociologists who have researched socioeconomic status and health even note that “education creates most of the associa- tion between higher socioeconomic status and better health because education is a root cause of good health.”23 Fur- thermore, educational attainment does not simply influence mortality through the other dimensions of socioeconomic status; it influences many other aspects of the life course as well, including health-related behavior, access to health care, cognitive functioning, and the development of social and psychological resources.
Building on the idea that education—and other measures of socioeconomic status— is a root cause of good health, Bruce Link and Jo Phelan have developed “fundamental cause theory” to explain the enduring impact of educational attainment on health and longevity. They propose that educational attain- ment is a root or primary cause of health and longevity because it affects multiple diseases, works through multiple mechanisms to influence health and longevity, serves as a resource that can be used to avoid health risks or lessen the impacts of disease, and continues to influence health and longevity even when the mechanisms linking education to health and longevity change. Lending support to this idea, Richard Miech and colleagues recently showed that educational differences in adult mortality widened over the past 10 years largely because educational attainment was so strongly associated with causes of death that became more prevalent in U.S. society over this time period.This last point is important because the economic divide is widening in the US, and it appears that the educational divide, and thus the mortality divide, is also widening.
Hummer and Hernandez also review the evidence for the role of genetics in death rates and conclude that most data suggest that education is a far stronger predictor of mortality than genetics (indeed, education is a strong predictor of all things demographic!), but they also note that this is an area that could use more research.