Quitting High School Might Be as Bad for Your Health as Smoking

A new study suggests that expanding access to education could increase public health.

If there was ever a compelling argument for staying in school, this is it: Finishing high school could save your life.

According to a new study led by researchers at the University of Colorado, the less education you have, the more likely you are to die early.

"We could potentially save a lot of lives if folks finished their high school degrees," Patrick Krueger, the lead author and an assistant professor in the Department of Health and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Colorado Denver, said.

While several other studies have pointed to links between low education levels and high mortality rates, Krueger's team aimed to put a number on the magnitude of the association.

They estimated that 145,243 deaths in 2010 were attributable to people having less than a high school diploma. To put the finding in perspective, that, the study says, is comparable to the number of deaths that could likely be avoided if current smokers had the same mortality rates as former smokers.

And, the study says, educational disparities in mortality are increasing. While life expectancy has gone up for those with higher levels of education, such as a bachelor's degree, the researchers point out that it has stagnated for people with less than a high school education, and actually declined among women without a high school diploma.

The researchers drilled into the figures and found that the disparity is especially significant when it comes to cardiovascular disease. It's less pronounced for cancer.

"All of the data we've seen suggest [the disparity] will keep growing,' Krueger said.

But it doesn't have to.

Krueger and the other researchers say knowing that the link is causal means that increasing education rates could seriously decrease mortality rates. The researchers suggest this may be especially true for people at the lowest education levels, those with less than a high school diploma.

The study points out that more than 10 percent of adults between the ages of 25 and 34 in 2012 did not have a high school diploma or GED, and more than 28 percent had some college, but not a bachelor's degree.

How to increase education levels is less clear-cut.

College accessibility and affordability have been hotly debated in recent weeks, as 2016 candidates and lawmakers weigh in on how to get more people into higher education. Democrats have vowed to expand Pell Grants and supported plans to make certain college programs free, while Republicans have advocated allowing private investors to help students pay for college in return for a percentage of their income, and low-cost online programs.

Krueger is reluctant to opine on the specifics of education policy, but he said he's hopeful that health policy experts now have an opportunity to join the discussion. While public-health policy often centers on programs to help people lose weight or eat healthier, Krueger said, he hopes this research will help health experts bring scientific leverage to arguments for expanding access to education.

Right now, children from affluent homes are more likely to graduate from college than their less-wealthy peers. Expanding access across the spectrum could foster very real health benefits. Highly educated people are more likely to live longer in part because they tend to earn more money, have access to better medical treatment, and maintain more social connections. Increasing access to education could bring these benefits to a broader array of people.