A study undertaken by researchers at the University of Colorado, NYU, and UNC Chapel Hill has unearthed a disturbing statistic: a person’s level of education correlates to his risk of disease and early death.
The study posited that health policies often focus on a person’s diet, as well as their smoking and drinking habits, when discussing health risks. However, one factor has consistently been ignored when concerning people’s overall risk of death: their education level. According to Virginia Chang, associate professor of public health at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development and College of Global Public Health, “Education — which is a more fundamental, upstream driver of health behaviors and disparities — should also be a key element of U.S. health policy.”
Researchers hypothesized that a higher level of education would lead to a lower risk of lifestyle-related diseases and untimely deaths. The reasoning behind this factored in a combination of higher income and social status, access to health care, and overall healthier behaviors and lifestyle.
The study involved analyzing the lives of people born in 1925, 1935, and 1945. Specifically, their cause of death was noted alongside their level of education. Researchers grouped together people who had not graduated high school, those who had some college experience, and those who had graduated college with a Bachelor’s degree.
The results were astounding: An estimated 145,243 lives could have possibly been prolonged had they completed high school earlier in life. Furthermore, 110,068 other lives could have been positively affected if people who attended college had not dropped out. Though these numbers may seem like conjecture, the study showed a strong enough correlation to be considered causal.
It’s also worth noting that mortality rates were only slightly affected from those who did not complete high school to those who did (without any further education). However, the difference between death rates of those with no high school diploma and those who graduated college showed an incredible discrepancy.
Of course, none of this is suggesting that those who complete high school or college magically have a better chance of living longer than those who do not. However, higher education levels certainly lead to more informed life choices and decisions. Many high school dropouts will miss out on highly important lessons regarding the importance of abstaining from tobacco and alcohol, maintaining a healthy diet, and exercising well. When such is the case, ignorance certainly isn’t bliss.
One piece of information worth noting is that the causes of a person’s death also correlated to their education level. While various types of cancer can end up affecting all people regardless of lifestyle, and therefore were not a factor specific to one demographic in the study, cardiovascular diseases were shown to affect the lesser-educated population in much higher numbers. Obviously, this lifestyle-related disease was a contributing factor to the early deaths recorded in lesser-educated individuals.
This research study was undertaken as part of the Healthy People 2020 initiative. The initiative aims to decrease the human mortality rate by increasing access to education, incentives to continue education, and provide assistance to those who exhibit dangerous lifestyle choices.
Unfortunately, as I said before, it’s not enough to educate the public on what’s good and bad for them. I doubt any smoker is in denial of the negative impact tobacco has on their lives, as well as the lives of their loved ones. The same goes for people who eat McDonald’s every other night. They know it’s not the best thing for them, but they simultaneously put off that date with the gym until “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” Along with properly educating our citizens about the detriments of an unhealthy lifestyle, we also need to change the overarching problems in our country that exacerbate these unhealthy lifestyles. But that’s a whole different article altogether.