Lack of Education: Just as Deadly as Smoking

Research conducted by the University of Colorado, New York University, and the University of Chapel Hill has concluded that 145,243 deaths a year could be prevented if every adult had a GED or regular high school diploma – a comparable mortality rate to that of smoking. Studies such as this one, on the association between education levels and health outcomes, is nothing new and has been extensively researched over the past decades, so what makes this recent study so intriguing?

The basic explanation for this connection between health and education, as explained by Victoria Chang, an associate professor at NYU and co-author of the study, is that people with more education usually have better jobs and higher incomes which translate into more opportunities such as higher quality foods, gym access, better health care, etc. But what sets this study apart is how it shows that there is more interconnectivity between education and health outcomes than just monetary means. Chang explains how there is a direct effect from education: improved cognitive skills. So even if your degree doesn’t increase your income, it still provides you with “more knowledge about health, more access to get that knowledge, more of a sense of agency, more self-efficacy, better peer connections.” These findings indicate something new – that there is sufficient evidence that a decent proportion of the relationship between education and health is causal, not just correlated.

But what do these findings mean? Well, they could set the stage for new debates in both education and health policy. The study concludes that “Our results suggest that policies and interventions that improve educational attainment could substantially improve survival in the US population, especially given widening educational disparities across birth cohorts.” This is good news for education policy! Chang points out how normally in health policy the focus has been on changing habits and behaviors such as diet, smoking, or drinking. But this study places emphasis on education, a more upstream, fundamental factor and indicates that it should also be included among the ranks of key elements in US health policy. This shift in thinking will hopefully put the spotlight on education and result in more educational attainment and positive health outcomes.

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