No doubt smoking is bad for your health.

But what if not getting a good education was just as harmful?

It is, according to a study published today in the journal PLOS ONE. 

Researchers at the University of Colorado, New York University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill analyzed data from the National Health Interview Survey, which was conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Education and Health

They concluded that 145,243 deaths could have been prevented in 2010 if adults who didn’t finish high school went on to earn a GED or high school degree.

Researchers say this number is comparable to the estimated number of deaths that could be averted if all current smokers had the mortality rates of people who once smoked but have stopped.

The researchers also report that if adults who had some college went on to complete their bachelor’s degree, 110,068 deaths could be avoided.

The analysis also showed that mortality rates fell modestly among those with high school degrees and much more rapidly among those with college degrees.

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Estimating Deaths Due to Low Education

Using data from more than 1 million people gathered between 1986 and 2006, researchers studied people born in 1925, 1935, and 1945 to understand how education levels affected mortality over time. They also noted the causes of death, including cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Researchers concluded that encouraging adults who didn’t complete high school to go back and get a diploma could save twice as many lives among those born in 1945 compared to those born in 1925.

They also noted that more deaths from cardiovascular disease could likely be averted in people with more education than deaths from cancer. This is likely due to advances in the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease among those with more education.

“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,” said Patrick Krueger, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Health and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Colorado Denver and the Population Program, Institute of Behavioral Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Krueger added that the mortality attributable to low education will continue to increase in the future “unless these trends change.”

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Can Public Policy Make an Impact?

According to the United States Census Bureau, more than 10 percent of U.S. adults ages 25 to 34 do not have a high school degree. Additionally, more than a quarter completed some college courses but did not receive a bachelor’s degree.

Researchers point out that many studies show a higher level of education is a strong predictor of longevity due to many factors. These include higher income and social status, healthier behaviors, and improved social and psychological well-being.

Still, Dr. Virginia Chang, Ph.D., 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, says public health policy focuses on changing behaviors such as eating, 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,” said Chang.

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Initiative to Improve Health in the U.S.

Healthy People 2020 is working to do exactly what Chang suggests.

The initiative, which was launched by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, hopes to improve health in the United States by setting goals for increasing the proportion of students completing high school by 2020.

Based on the researchers’ findings, they say meeting these goals could have a substantial impact on future survival patterns.