It looks like a lack of education could be just as dangerous as smoking. A recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Colorado, New York University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has estimated the number of deaths that can be attributed to low levels of education.

"In public health policy, we often focus on changing health behaviors such as diet, smoking, and drinking," Virginia Chang, an associate professor of population health at NYU School of Medicine, said in a statement. "Education, which is a more fundamental, upstream driver of health behaviors and disparities, should also be a key element of U.S. health policy."

Chang and her colleagues gathered data using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Health Interview Survey, which included responses from over a million people between 1986 and 2006. This data also included people born in 1925, 1935, and 1945 to determine how education levels have affected mortality over time. While just over 10 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 do not have a high school degree, around a quarter have some college experience with no bachelor’s degree.

Results showed that 145,243 deaths in 2010 could’ve been prevented if adults who had not earned a high school degree had ended up completing a GED or high school degree. This estimate is comparable to the number of deaths that could be prevented if current smokers had the same mortality rate as former smokers. An additional 110,068 deaths could’ve been prevented if adults who went to college actually finished their bachelor’s degree.

"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," said Patrick Krueger, assistant professor in the Department of Health & Behavioral Sciences at the University of Colorado Denver. "Unless these trends change, the mortality attributable to low education will continue to increase in the future."

Over time, the association between mortality rates and different education levels has widened significantly. Although mortality rates among people with high school degrees dropped mildly, the same rates for those with college degrees dropped much more rapidly. The number of deaths that could’ve been prevented by encouraging the completion of a high school diploma doubled between people born in 1925 and those born in 1945.

"Broadly, life expectancy is increasing, but those with more education are reaping most of the benefits," Chang added. "In addition to education policy's obvious relevance for improving learning and economic opportunities, its benefits to health should also be thought of as a key rationale. The bottom line is paying attention to education has the potential to substantively reduce mortality."

So how exactly can a death be tied to someone’s education level? Research continues to show that factors related to a higher level of education, such as higher income, social status, healthier behaviors, and improved social and psychological wellbeing, are also tied directly to our longevity. Smoking can be lethal on its own, but add high blood pressure and a low educational level and that person has a significantly higher risk for suffering from a stroke.

Source: Krueger P, Tran M, Hummer R, Chang V. Mortality Attributable to Low Levels of Education in the United States. PLOS ONE. 2015.