Learning for life: The higher the level of education, the lower the risk of dying

January 28, 2024

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Learning for life: The higher the level of education, the lower the risk of dying

Education saves lives regardless of age, sex, location, and social and demographic backgrounds. That’s according to the latest and largest study of its kind published today in The Lancet Public Health.

Researchers have known that those who reach higher levels of schooling live longer than others, but they didn’t know to what extent until now. What they have now found is that the risk of premature death drops by two per cent with every additional year of education. That means those who completed six years of primary school had a lower risk of early death by an average of 13 per cent. After graduating from secondary school, the risk of dying early was cut by nearly 25 per cent, and 18 years of education lowered the risk by 34 per cent.

Researchers also compared the effects of education to other risk factors such as eating a healthy diet, smoking, and drinking too much alcohol, and they found the health outcome to be similar. For example, the benefit of 18 years of education can be compared to that of eating the ideal amount of vegetables, as opposed to not eating vegetables at all. Not going to school at all is as bad for you as drinking five or more alcoholic drinks per day or smoking ten cigarettes a day for 10 years.

What the researchers say: “Education is important in its own right, not just for its benefits on health, but now being able to quantify the magnitude of this benefit is a significant development,” said the study’s co-author.

While the benefits of education are greatest for young people, those older than 50 and even 70 years still benefit from the protective effects of education.

Researchers found no significant difference in the effects of education between countries that have reached different stages of development. This means that more years of education is just as effective in rich countries as in poor countries.

“We need to increase social investments to enable access to better and more education around the globe to stop the persistent inequalities that are costing lives,” the researchers explained. “More education leads to better employment and higher income, better access to healthcare, and helps us take care of our own health. Highly educated people also tend to develop a larger set of social and psychological resources that contribute to their health and the length of their lives.”

“Closing the education gap means closing the mortality gap, and we need to interrupt the cycle of poverty and preventable deaths with the help of international commitment,” the lead researcher told us. “In order to reduce inequalities in mortality, it’s important to invest in areas that promote people’s opportunities to get an education. This can have a positive effect on population health in all countries.”

The study identified data from 59 countries and included over 10,000 data points collected from over 600 published articles.

So, what? Previous research has shown that the brain is, in essence, a learning machine. When we cease to learn, or be curious, it begins to malfunction and this can lead to dementia and other mental and physical health issues and to premature aging, and death.

We have advised governments to incorporate life-long learning as an integral part of their health programs since the savings, particularly, as the present researchers point out, in aged care would be tremendous.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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