A low level of education could be hazardous to your long-term well-being and lifespan, suggests a recent study by researchers at the University of Colorado, New York University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In addition, variation in the risk of death between different levels of education has widened appreciably. Virginia Chang, associate professor at NYU School of Medicine, said:

“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.”

The study team studied data, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health Interview Survey, on more than a million people from 1986 to 2006 to estimate the number of deaths that could be ascribed to low levels of education.

Estimates of mortality show the potential number of lives that could be saved if adults had a higher level of education. The research team looked at people born in 1925, 1935, and 1945 to assess how education levels affected mortality over time, and noted the causes of death, including cardiovascular disease and cancer.

The results indicated 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. This is comparable to the estimated number of deaths that could be averted if all current smokers had the mortality rates of former smokers.

Furthermore, 110,068 deaths could be saved if adults who had some college went on to complete their bachelor’s degree.

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, said:

“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.”

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

Mortality Attributable to Low Levels of Education in the United States Patrick M. Krueger, Melanie K. Tran, Robert A. Hummer, Virginia W. Chang PLOS ONE, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0131809

Photo: COD Newsroom/flickr

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