Open Access Open Badges Research

The contribution of educational inequalities to lifespan variation

Alyson A van Raalte12*, Anton E Kunst3, Olle Lundberg45, Mall Leinsalu67, Pekka Martikainen8, Barbara Artnik9, Patrick Deboosere10, Irina Stirbu2, Bogdan Wojtyniak11 and Johan P Mackenbach2

Author Affiliations

1 Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock, Germany

2 Department of Public Health, Erasmus Medical Centre, Rotterdam, The Netherlands

3 Department of Public Health, Academic MC, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

4 Centre for Health Equity Studies, Stockholm University/Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden

5 Department of Health Sciences, Mid Sweden University, Östersund, Sweden

6 Stockholm Centre on Health of Societies in Transition, Södertörn University, Södertörn, Sweden

7 Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, the National Institute for Health Development, Tallinn, Estonia

8 Department of Sociology, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland

9 Department of Public Health, Faculty of Medicine, University of Ljubljana, Ljubljana, Slovenia

10 Department of Social Research, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Brussels, Belgium

11 Department of Monitoring and Analyses of Population Health, National Institute of Public Health-National Institute of Hygiene, Warsaw, Poland

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Population Health Metrics 2012, 10:3  doi:10.1186/1478-7954-10-3

Published: 16 February 2012



Studies of socioeconomic inequalities in mortality consistently point to higher death rates in lower socioeconomic groups. Yet how these between-group differences relate to the total variation in mortality risk between individuals is unknown.


We used data assembled and harmonized as part of the Eurothine project, which includes census-based mortality data from 11 European countries. We matched this to national data from the Human Mortality Database and constructed life tables by gender and educational level. We measured variation in age at death using Theil's entropy index, and decomposed this measure into its between- and within-group components.


The least-educated groups lived between three and 15 years fewer than the highest-educated groups, the latter having a more similar age at death in all countries. Differences between educational groups contributed between 0.6% and 2.7% to total variation in age at death between individuals in Western European countries and between 1.2% and 10.9% in Central and Eastern European countries. Variation in age at death is larger and differs more between countries among the least-educated groups.


At the individual level, many known and unknown factors are causing enormous variation in age at death, socioeconomic position being only one of them. Reducing variations in age at death among less-educated people by providing protection to the vulnerable may help to reduce inequalities in mortality between socioeconomic groups.

Lifespan variation; Life expectancy; Socioeconomic inequality; Education; International variation; Mortality