There are plenty of compelling reasons to stay in school, but a new study published in journal PLOS ONE has offered up one more — it may also be good for your health. According to researchers at New York University, the University of Colorado, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “lacking education may be as deadly as being a current rather than former smoker.” The findings have led them to argue that access to education is a public health issue. From ScienceDaily:

“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.”

The researchers began with observations, from previous studies, that have linked people with higher education to having higher satisfaction, general well-being, and economic status than less educated people. The “evidence from studies including natural experiments consistently show a strong association between education level and mortality” led them to wonder if “a substantial part of the association between education and mortality is causal.”

To test the hypothesis, they looked at one million peoples’ worth of data from the CDC’s National Health Interview Survey between 1986 to 2006 and estimated “the number of deaths that could be attributed to low levels of education” — people, in other words who could have lived longer if they’d stayed in school. The researchers then looked at 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.”

Here’s what they found, looking at the 2010 U.S. population:

They found that 145,243 deaths could be saved in the 2010 population if adults who had not completed high school went on to earn a GED or high school degree, which is comparable to the estimated number of deaths that could be averted if all current smokers had the mortality rates of former smokers. In addition, 110,068 deaths could be saved if adults who had some college went on to complete their bachelor’s degree.

The disparities in mortality across different levels of education widened substantially over time. For example, mortality rates fell modestly among those with high school degrees, but mortality rates fell much more rapidly among those with college degrees. As a result, encouraging high school completion among adults who have not finished high school could save twice as many lives among those born in 1945 as compared to those born in 1925.

Deaths from cardiovascular disease played a greater role than deaths from cancer in these growing gaps in mortality and improvements in survival for well-educated people, likely due to advances in the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease among those with more education.

Access to education, in other words, means access to better technology and a host of other life-improving measures. Said Chang, “Broadly, life expectancy is increasing, but those with more education are reaping most of the benefits.”

(Photo: Jason Lawrence)