Estimating the number of deaths that can be linked to differences in education, researchers have determined that lacking education may be as deadly as being a current rather than former smoker.
"In public health policy, we often focus on changing health behaviours such as diet, smoking, and drinking," said Virginia Chang, associate professor of population health at New York Univerity School of Medicine.
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The study published in the journal PLOS ONE Education suggests that education - which is a more fundamental, upstream driver of health behaviours and disparities - should also be a key element.
The team looked at data on more than a million people from 1986 to 2006 to estimate the number of deaths that could be attributed to low levels of education in the US.
They studied 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.
The researchers estimated the number of deaths in the 2010 US population for two scenarios with relevance for policy: having less than a high school degree, and having some college but not a bachelor's degree.
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 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.
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In addition, 110,068 deaths could be saved if adults who had some college went on to complete their bachelor's degree.
"Our results suggest that policies and interventions that improve educational attainment could substantially improve survival in the US population," Patrick Krueger from University of Colorado Boulder said.