Professor Richard Miech of the University of Colorado Denver and colleagues said data have showed for decades middle-aged adults with low education levels -- high school or less -- are twice as likely to die as those with higher education levels.
Miech's study, published in the American Sociological Review, provides new understanding as to why death rates for less educated middle-aged adults are much higher than for their more educated peers, despite increased awareness and treatments aimed at reducing health disparities.
The researchers found as new causes of death emerge, people with lower education levels are slower to respond with behavioral changes, creating a moving target that often remains a step ahead of prevention efforts.
Despite efforts to reduce education-based mortality disparities, the gap remains because new health disparities counteract the efforts to reduce the death rates for those with less education -- the causes of death have changed, rates have not, Miech said.
"One hundred years ago, the top causes of death were tuberculosis, diarrhea and pneumonia," Miech said in a statement. "They've been replaced by heart disease, cancer, and stroke. But, one thing that hasn't changed is that people with lower levels of education continue to be the ones dying at greater rates."