Lacking Education May Be as Deadly as Being a Smoker


Lacking education may be as deadly as being a current, rather than former smoker.  A study on higher education and life expectancy suggests people with a higher education reap the benefits of living longer.

When it comes to improving and saving lives, study evidence shows that education should receive more focus, rather than changing health behaviors, like smoking, drinking, and diet.

Lacking Education Reduces Life Expectancy

Due to a variety of factors, studies show that a higher level of education is a strong predictor of whether a person lives longer.  Healthier behaviors, a higher income and social status, and improved social and psychological well-being, are three basic factors that attribute to a person living a longer life.

A study by researchers at New York University, the University of Colorado, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill estimated the number of deaths that can be linked to differences in education.  The team of researchers found that study evidence consistently shows a strong association between education level and mortality.

According to 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, public health policies may need to view higher education as a primary focus.

“In public health policy, we often focus on changing health behaviors such as diet, smoking, and drinking.  Education — which is a more fundamental, upstream driver of health behaviors and disparities — should also be a key element of U.S. health policy.”

In the United States there are many people lacking education.  More than 10 percent of U.S. adults between the ages of 25 and 34 don’t have a high school degree.  Additionally, more than a quarter have some college but have not earned a bachelor’s degree.

A considerable part of the link between education and mortality is causal.  That is, one event is the result of the occurrence of the other event.

Study Highlights

Using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health Interview Survey, the study team looked at information on more than a million people from 1986 to 2006.  The researcher’s goal was to estimate the number of deaths attributed to low levels of education. They studied people born in 1925, 1935, and 1945 to understand how education levels affected mortality over time.

The researchers also noted the causes of death — including cancer and cardiovascular disease.  They found in the 2010 population, if adults who had not completed high school went on to earn a GED or high school degree, 145,243 lives could have been saved.

This finding is comparable to the estimated number of deaths that could be averted if all current smokers had the mortality rates of former smokers. Additionally, if adults who had some college went on to complete their bachelor’s degree, 110,068 people may have lived longer.

Encouraging Education

The difference in whether a person lived longer — compared to his or her level of education — substantially improved over time.  For example, life expectancy was longer for those with high school degrees.  However, life expectancy was far longer for people with college degrees.

Encouraging adults who have not finished high school to complete high school could save twice as many lives among those born in 1945 as compared to those born in 1925, according to researchers of this study.

Patrick Krueger, assistant professor in the Department of Health & Behavioral Sciences at the University of Colorado Denver | Anschutz Medical Campus and the Institute of Behavioral Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, suggests trends need to change.

“Our results suggest that policies and interventions that improve educational attainment could substantially improve survival in the U.S. population, especially given widening educational disparities.  Unless these trends change, the mortality attributable to low education will continue to increase in the future.”

Impacting Survival Patterns

The researchers said that based on their findings, meeting the goals of Healthy People 2020 could have a substantial impact on future survival patterns.

Healthy People 2020 is an initiative to improve Americans’ health decade by decade.  They set goals for increasing the proportion of students lacking education to complete high school by 2020.

Virginia Chang comments on the need for higher education.

“Broadly, life expectancy is increasing, but those with more education are reaping most of the benefits.  In addition to education policy’s obvious relevance for improving learning and economic opportunities, its benefits to health should also be thought of as a key rationale. The bottom line is paying attention to education has the potential to substantively reduce mortality.”

Published findings of this study titled, “Mortality Attributable to Low Levels of Education in the United States,” are in the journal PLOS ONE.

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George Zapo, CPH
George Zapo, CPH is certified in Public Health Promotion & Education. George focuses on writing informative articles promoting healthy behavior and lifestyles. Read more of George's articles at his website: