Research conducted by New York University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Colorado found that low levels of education have a significant effect on mortality. Their findings, which were published in PLOS ONE, suggested that lacking education may be as deadly as being a current smoker as compared to a former smoker.
Studies have shown that higher levels of education are a strong predictor of longevity, but more than 10% of US adults aged 25 to 34 lack a high school degree. More than 25% more have some college, but lack a bachelor’s degree.
The study team examined data on more than a million people from 1986 to 2006 from the CDC’s National Health Interview Survey. They aimed to estimate the number of deaths that could be attributed to low levels of education. Looking at people born in 1925, 1935, and 1945, the researchers examined how education levels affected mortality and noted the causes of death, including cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Then, the researchers estimated the number of deaths in the 2010 population for those with lower levels of education. They found that 145,243 deaths could be avoided in that population if adults without high school degrees went on to earn a GED or high school degree. In addition, 110,068 deaths could be prevented if adults with some college went on to complete their bachelor’s degree.
The researchers found that deaths from cardiovascular disease accounted for much of the difference compared to those from cancer. They attributed the difference to advances in the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease among those who were more highly educated.
Improving education has long been a goal of public health policy, and the researchers said that meeting the goals of programs like Healthy People 2020 could have a substantial impact on future survival rates.