Generating Insights With Gapminder

Posted by Ashley Bradetich Bowles

Apr 30

Exploring the Correlation between Adult Literacy Rates and Life Expectancy


Using Gapminder longitudinal research, I explored the relationship between literacy rates in adults 15 years of age and above, and life expectancy in years.  The results were presented in a scatterplot graph, which depicted a positive, nonlinear relationship between the two variables.  Generally speaking, the greater the literacy rate, the greater the life expectancy.  Most countries followed this pattern, with a few outliers as the exception to the rule.  The graph in Figure 1 below was created using the Gapminder software.  Literacy rate, adult total (% of people ages 15 and above) is represented on the X-axis, and Life Expectancy (years) is represented on the Y-axis.  The size of the plots on the graph is dictated by the countries’ populations.  A correlation between the two variables is distinctly visible.

Relationship between Literacy and Life Expectancy

Figure 1: Gapminder Graph Illustrating Relationship between Literacy and Life Expectancy

Gapminder Variable Definitions

Literacy: "Adult literacy rate is the percentage of people ages 15 and above who can understand, read, and write a short, simple statement on their everyday life.”

Life Expectancy: “The average number of years a newborn child would live if current mortality patterns were to stay the same.”

Possible Reasons for Results

According to research conducted by Low, et al., “people’s social and economic circumstances affect their health throughout life” (2005, p. 1132).  One way to look at this statement, is illustrated in Figure 2 below.  Essentially, the higher one’s socioeconomic status, the better access to healthcare and education. 

  • Access to healthcare implies higher likelyhood of surviving illness or injury, thus prolonging life.
  • Access to education implies higher rate of literacy, which may help one gain greater access to employment opportunities that would ultimately boost personal weath and socioeconomic status in the process.
Low, et al. goes on to say, “better-educated people are healthier, enjoy higher levels of self-reported health, and have lower levels of morbidity, mortality, and disability” (2005, p. 1137).

Relationship among Weath Literacy and Life Expectancy

Figure 2: Relationship among Wealth, Literacy, and Life Expectancy

In their cross-national comparison study, Hertz et al. (1994) state that “family planning for developing countries is a priority for decreasing infant and maternal mortality rates.  Because female literacy is a strong predictor of family size and birth spacing … it may be the vehicle by which to best effect family planning. Such improvements would probably also lead to greater overall affluence, better child and maternal nutrition as well as improved intra-family allocation of other resources, and better preventive medical care” (1994, p. 110).  If literacy rates, especially in women, are higher, their ability to access and comprehend health literature increases.  The more knowledge these women possess, the more likely they will be able to properly care for their babies and themselves, ultimately improving quality and longevity of life.

Bergh and Nilsson define globalization as “the process by which different economies and societies become more closely integrated” (2010, p. 1191).  They go on to say that “globalization may positively affect education levels, including literacy.  For example, the possibility of working abroad may increase the education premium and thus strengthen education incentives.  In addition, social globalization via tourism and information flows may increase literacy levels” (2010, p. 1192).  That is to say, countries that are more “globalized” are likely to have greater tourism value and more incentive to improve education and raise literacy rates.

Another possible reason for the strong correlation between greater literacy rates and longer life expectancies, is that “better health may lead to more and better education” (Low et al. 2005, 1141).  Sickness would likely prevent a person from attending school, or being too distracted by discomfort or illness to learn while in a classroom.  It is not as likely that health affects education the same way education affects health, but it is certainly a possibility.

How Does Education Positively Affect Health?

  • Education is … critical for acquiring those “spiritual resources” and capacities … that are necessary for making moral choices, making informed judgments, increasing personal sense of control, enabling mastery, and facilitating self-direction.
  • Better-educated people tend to have more numerous, supportive, and informative associations with family, friends, and others in their community, and there is large literature on the positive health effects of social support.
  • Well-educated people are more likely to engage in positive health behaviors such as exercising, not smoking, not drinking heavily, and using the health care system appropriately. (Low et al. 2005, p. 1139-1140).

The Outliers

Despite a generally consistent trend, where higher literacy rates correlate with longer life expectancies, there are a few countries that stand out as exceptions to the rule. 

  • Zimbabwe boasts 90% literacy in adults, yet the life expectancy is only 45 years of age (AIDS/HIV is the number one cause of death in adults aged 15-45, responsible for 20% of deaths (Lopman et al. 2010, p. 330-331)). 
  • Morocco’s life expectancy is 71 years, yet only 54% of the adult population is literate.  “The net rate of enrollment for primary education in Morocco was 58 percent in 1991, much lower than the average for Arab countries (81%) or lower-middle-income countries (87%)” (Lavy & Spratt, p. 123).  Morocco hopes to wipe out illiteracy by the year 2015.  The longer life expectancy despite literacy rates being so low could be related to diet or other factors. 
  • The countries in the Indian subcontinent stand out as well, with a life expectancies in the low to mid 60s and literacy rates ranging from 53%-63% (Sri Lanka and the Maldives being the exception: 74, 91%; and 75, 98%, respectively). 


Low et al. surmises that “the longer you stay in school, the longer you are likely to live. More education is clearly associated with better health. Lack of education as least as manifest by illiteracy, is just as a clearly associated with worse health” (2005, p. 1138).  This claim is overwhelmingly supported by years of research and various longitudinal studies, but we cannot state outright that higher literacy or better education cause greater life expectancy.  Gapminder easily illustrates the strong correlation between literacy and life expectancy and is a useful tool for exploring correlations between other variable and data sets.

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Bergh, A., & Nilsson, T. (2010). Good for living? On the relationship between globalization and life expectancy. World Development, 38(9), 1191-1203.

Hertz, E., Hebert, J. R., & Landon, J. (1994, July). Social and environmental factors and life expectancy, infant mortality, and maternal mortality rates: Results of a cross-national comparison. Social Science & Medicine, 39(1), 105-114.

Lavy, V., & Spratt, J. (1997, May). Patterns of incidence and change in Morccon literacy. Compartitive Education Review, 41(2), 120-141.

Lopman, B., Cook, A., Smith, J., Chawira, G., Urassa, M., Kumogola, Y., . . . Boerma, T. (2010, April). Verbal autopsy can consistently measure AIDS mortality: a validation study in Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 64(4), 330-334.

Low, M., Low, B., & Baumler, L. R. (2005, December). Can education policy be health policy? Implications of research on the social determinants of health. Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, 30(6), 1131-1162.

Topics: Information Visualization, Gapminder

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