Getting a high school diploma is as good for health as quitting smoking.
That's the finding from a study released Wednesday by researchers at the University of Colorado, New York University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
They found that if every adult high school dropout in the 2010 population had a GED or a regular diploma, 145,243 deaths could be averted.
Similarly, 110,068 deathscould be avoided for that year if every adult who already had some college finished their bachelor's degrees. And if everyone in the population got a bachelor's degree, the total untimely deaths would be reduced by 554,525. To be clear, says Virginia Chang, an associate professor of public health and of population health at NYU and a co-author of the study, "We're not going to make everyone have a BA all of a sudden." But as a thought experiment, the impact is stark.
The connection between education levels and health has been well-documented, and, this study found, it's growing in recent generations.
"In the simplest version, people with more education have higher income and more money," Chang says. "They can afford to eat better, a gym membership or a personal trainer, support to quit smoking."
But, Chang adds, there's also a direct effect of the education itself: Education enhances cognitive skills. Even if your degree doesn't earn you 1 cent more, it may give you "more knowledge about health, more access to get that knowledge, more of a sense of agency, more self-efficacy, better peer connections."
That's why she's comfortable saying "we have a fair amount of confidence that a decent proportion" of the connection between education and health "is causal."
The researchers examined the results of the National Health Interview Survey, which for decades has been the main government survey assessing the health of the civilian population.
The researchers were able to tease out the effects of levels of education on various causes of death. As society becomes more unequal in so many other ways, life expectancy, too, is diverging.
They found that mortality rates from cardiovascular disease, especially, are falling, but educated people are reaping most of the benefits.
"When there's new knowledge about risk factors or new developments in treatment, people with more education find out about it first and may have more access to the treatment," Chang says.
The purpose of this kind of research is twofold. One is to encourage education policy folks to talk about education as a matter of life-and-death importance. If, that is, we need another argument besides economic growth, national defense and individual self-determination.
And in an equal and opposite direction, another purpose is to get public health folks talking about education as an important upstream factor driving health behaviors.
"In public health policy, we often focus on changing health behaviors such as diet, smoking and drinking," Chang said. "Education — which is a more fundamental, upstream driver of health behaviors and disparities — should also be a key element of U.S. health policy."