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A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH: New Study Finds Dropping Out of High School Could Be as Deadly as Smoking

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The researchers estimate that the deaths of 145,243 individuals in the 2010 population could be attributed to those individuals’ lack of a high school diploma.

A wide body of research has established that high school dropouts face a variety of detrimental consequences, including lower earnings and higher rates of unemployment and incarceration. But a new study from the University of Colorado, New York University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill actually quantifies the number of deaths linked to the lack of a high school diploma.

“We know that the risk of death varies by education level, but a separate issue is what proportion of deaths can we relate to this,” explains Virginia Chang, coauthor of the study and associate professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development and College of Global Public Health. “We wanted to put a number on that, and we were surprised by how big the number is.”

For the study, Mortality Attributable to Low Levels of Education in the United States, Chang and her colleagues examined data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Census Bureau about more than 1 million people, analyzing the relative risk of death among individuals with various levels of education. The researchers then compared those findings with the actual distribution of educational attainment within the U.S. population to determine the number of deaths attributable to specific levels of education. Such “[e]stimates of attributable mortality [essentially] indicate the number of lives that could be potentially saved if adults had a higher level of education,” according to a statement released about the study.

The researchers estimate that the deaths of 145,243 individuals in the 2010 population could be attributed to those individuals’ lack of a high school diploma. This figure is “comparable to the estimated number of deaths that could be averted if all current smokers had the mortality rates of former smokers,” according to the study. An additional 110,068 deaths could be saved if individuals who started college completed their bachelor’s degrees. Furthermore, the connection between level of education and mortality is so strong that “[e]xisting research suggests that a substantial part of the association between education and mortality is causal,” meaning efforts to increase high school and college graduation rates could impact adult death rates significantly and directly, according to the study.

“In addition to education policy’s obvious relevance for improving learning and socioeconomic opportunities, its benefits to health should also be thought of as a key rationale,” Chang says. “The bottom line is paying attention to education has the potential to substantively reduce mortality.”

Additionally, Chang and her colleagues examined data on people born in 1925, 1935, and 1945 to determine how education levels impact mortality over time. The study finds “the difference in life expectancy between different levels of education is bigger for the later birth cohorts,” Chang explains. This finding indicates that variations in mortality between different education levels are widening, and death rates are decreasing more rapidly for individuals with higher levels of education. In Chang’s study, the percentage of deaths attributable to low levels of education among people born in 1945 was double the percentage of similar deaths among people born in 1925. That means encouraging current high school dropouts to earn their diplomas potentially could save even more lives than in previous generations.

“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,” Patrick Krueger, coauthor of the study and assistant professor at the University of Colorado, says in a statement. “Unless these trends change, the mortality attributable to low education will continue to increase in the future.”

Mortality Attributable to Low Levels of Education in the United States is available at http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0131809#abstract0.

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