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Eating healthier foods, getting more sleep, and reducing stress can all help you live longer. But researchers reporting in the Lancet Public Health say that there’s another healthy habit that we shouldn’t forget: getting an education.
Analyzing data from hundreds of studies of people in 59 countries, the scientists studied the relationship between how many years of education people received and mortality. They found that people with more schooling tended to die later than those who had less. Every additional year of education reduced mortality by 2%.
That translates to a 34% lower risk of dying early for people who complete high school and college—about 18 total years of schooling—compared to those who don’t. That's about as protective against early death as eating the recommended daily amounts of vegetables. Conversely, having very little schooling increases mortality as much as drinking five or more drinks a day or smoking 10 cigarettes a day for 10 years, says Dr. Emmanuela Gakidou, professor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington School of Medicine and co-author of the study. “The impact of education does seem to be comparable to some of the bigger health factors like diet, smoking and excessive drinking."
And the more years spent in school, the better. Gakidou was surprised to see that the benefit of each year of education did not attenuate. Previous research has suggested that after a certain point, the impact of education on health outcomes may plateau, with each additional year having smaller or no incremental benefit. “We didn’t find that in our analysis,” she says. “It looks like education keeps on giving in reducing mortality risk, so every year matters.”
Read More: How to Prepare to Live to 100
The new research is a meta-analysis combining findings from 600 different studies in which researchers compared how much schooling adults had received (most had completed their education) and when they died. Gakidou and her colleagues applied statistical methods to measure the effect of schooling on a person by their age, gender, and country’s economic status. They found that a link between higher education and reduced mortality was pretty universal across these variables. While the magnitude of benefit varied slightly by age, with younger people showing a greater reduction in mortality than older people, “we found that education matters at all ages,” says Gakidou.
Because it was a meta-analysis of previous studies, Gakidou says the researchers were not able to look at the quality of education—only the amount of schooling people had received. They also did not know when people received their education, so these results don’t say anything about optimal timing for school.
Still, the findings quantify how critical education can be for longevity. “The exact mechanism by which education operates with mortality is complex,” says Gakidou. “It affects employment, income, the neighborhoods in which you live, and the types of resources you have available for diet and a healthy lifestyle. You can imagine that affects every aspect of your life and operates for the rest of one’s life once you complete it.”
That's why the findings strongly suggest that focusing on education could be a reasonable—and powerful—way to change health outcomes of a population over the long term. “If you really wanted to change the health profile of a country decades from now, what this study shows is that investments in education are likely to yield massive benefits in the future,” says Gakidou.
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