New Delhi: Every year spent in school or university improves our life expectancy, while not attending school is as deadly as smoking or heavy drinking, according to the first systematic study directly linking education to gains in longevity.
Using evidence from industrialised countries such as the UK and US as well as developing countries such as China and Brazil, the review found that an adult’s risk of mortality went down by 2% for every year in full-time education.
Completing primary, secondary and tertiary education is the equivalent of a lifetime of eating a healthy diet, lowering the risk of death by 34% compared with those with no formal education, according to the peer-reviewed analysis in The Lancet Public Health journal.
At the opposite extreme, not attending school at any point was as bad for adult health as consuming five or more alcoholic drinks every day or smoking 10 cigarettes each day for a decade.
The study adds impetus to efforts in England to ensure children stay at school, with experts saying the results underline connections between school attendance and health.
It also implies that increases in the school leaving age and rising numbers of young people staying on into further and higher education could add years to future levels of life expectancy.
While the benefits of education on life expectancy have long been recognised, the review by academics at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and the University of Washington in Seattle is the first to calculate the number of years of education and its connections to reducing mortality.
Neil Davies, professor of medical statistics at University College London and an expert on the links between education and health who was not involved in the research, described it as “an impressive piece of work”.
But Davies cautioned that associations seen in the past may change, given the UK’s recent expansion in higher education and other factors such as the decline in smoking so that rates are now similar among graduates and non-graduates.
Higher rates of school absences could also see children missing out on the future health benefits, Davies noted, saying: “It’s worth noting that the increased rates of absence from school have major consequences beyond their effect on health.
“The relationship between time spent in education and earnings has been very well studied and is pretty robust. This is also likely to be worse for more disadvantaged students.
“Quite honestly, the links between education and mortality are the least of our worries about the increased rates of school absence – the labour market consequences are likely to be worse.”
The researchers said the meta-analysis, backed by the Norwegian government’s research fund and the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation, was “compelling evidence” in support of increased investment in education as a way to reduce inequalities in global death rates.
“Education is important in its own right, not just for its benefits to health, but now being able to quantify the magnitude of this benefit is a significant development,” said Dr Terje Andreas Eikemo of NTNU, the study’s co-author.
The analysis also found the improvements in longevity to be similar in rich and poor countries, and regardless of sex, social class and demography.
David Finch, an assistant director of the Health Foundation who has studied life expectancy as part of its healthy lives team, said: “We have really big inequalities in the UK, the gap in life expectancy between the least and most deprived areas in England is 9.4 years for men and 7.7 years for women, and it isn’t surprising that you see a significant difference when comparing by qualification level.
“So it’s not surprising in that sense but it’s really interesting to see it quantified.”
Finch said greater level of education improved life expectancy in different ways, including through “soft,” non-financial benefits.
“It helps you to build better social connections. It makes you better at accessing and understanding information that can help you make better choices, essentially, whether it’s financial or what you choose to do and participate in,” Finch said.
“It can help you feel empowered and valued. Those are slightly softer and really important things that can help people.
“A key channel is through which education leads to higher lifetime earnings and that itself in turn helps you to access lots of other things that are really important, like better quality of housing, a better diet.”
Finch said that whether a longer lifespan would continue to be enjoyed by those who spend longer in education depends on whether benefits remain in place.
“Will that translate into better standards of living over their lifetimes, in the future? That’s where there is a question: can people access affordable housing? Are young people’s career earnings trajectories what they were for people 30 or 40 years ago, at the same age? The prospects aren’t as rosy,” Finch said.