A new study, published July 8 in the journal PLOS ONE, shockingly reveals that the lack of education might be as deadly as being a current rather than former smoker. Conducted at the University of Colorado, New York University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found a connection between the number of deaths and differences in education, and finds that variation in the risk of death across education levels has widened considerably.
“In public health policy, we often focus on changing health behaviors such as diet, smoking, and drinking,” said Virginia Chang, associate professor of public health at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development and College of Global Public Health, and associate professor of population health at NYU School of Medicine. “Education – which is a more fundamental, upstream driver of health behaviors and disparities – should also be a key element of U.S. health policy.”
Low levels of education are common considering the rising cost in tuition fees. Most people find it difficult to make ends meet, let alone be able to afford college. More than 10% of U.S. adults ages 25 to 34 do not have a high school degree, while more than a quarter have some college but no bachelor’s degree.
Not surprisingly, studies have shown that a higher level of education is a strong predictor of longevity due to many factors, including higher income and social status, healthier behaviors, and improved social and psychological well being. Evidence from studies including natural experiments consistently show a strong association between education level and mortality and suggest that a substantial part of the association between education and mortality is causal.
The researchers used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health Interview Survey, looking at more than a million people from 1986 to 2006 to estimate the number of deaths that could be attributed to low levels of education. Estimates of attributable mortality indicate the number of lives that could be potentially saved if adults had a higher level of education. They studied people born in 1925, 1935, and 1945 to understand how education levels affected mortality over time, and noted the causes of death, including cardiovascular disease and cancer.
The researchers estimated the number of deaths in the 2010 U.S. population for two scenarios with relevance for policy: having less than a high school degree, and having some college but not a bachelor’s degree. Maximizing high school graduations rates and the completion of college among those who have already entered are viable policy targets.