The longevity-boosting power of education

Published January 23, 2024

children walking to school in Japan

Key takeaways:

  • A new study shows that each additional year of education reduces risk of death by about 2%.
  • The benefits of an 18-year education are comparable to eating enough vegetables in your diet.
  • More education leads to increased resources that can help a person build a healthy lifestyle.

A Q & A with IHME researcher Claire Henson

IHME: Many people are interested in ways to boost longevity, whether it be through diet and exercise, etc. In your study, how powerful is the lifesaving effect of education?

Claire Henson: Our study, which was based on over 600 articles from across the world, identified that every additional year of education is protective against mortality. We found that there’s about a 2% reduction in mortality risk with each additional year of schooling, meaning, if you add that up over primary school, high school, and beyond, the reduction in mortality risk compared to zero years of schooling is quite large.

a bar chart showing that the average mortality risk decreases by 1.9% for every year of education, leading to a 13% decrease with a 6-year education, a 24% decrease for a 12-year education, and a 34% decrease for an 18-year education
Source: Education as protection against adult mortality

Imagine that with a college degree plus a master’s degree, you could have up to a 34% reduction in mortality risk compared to [someone who had] no schooling.

IHME: How effective is education compared to things like eating a healthy diet and regular physical activity?

Claire Henson: You can compare the benefits of 18 years of education to eating the ideal amount of vegetables [in your diet]. Conversely, not going to school at all is just as bad for your health as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for five years or drinking more than five drinks a day. So, this social determinant of health – schooling – is just as powerful as these more commonly discussed risk factors.

IHME: Why do you think that education works so well when it comes to preventing early death?

Claire Henson: Having access to education really increases a person’s ability to build and have a healthy lifestyle. Higher education increases the resources that an individual has available to them, such as monetary and social resources.  

IHME: How do your findings apply across different areas of social marginalization? I know you didn’t evaluate that in your study. But, for example in the United States, we talk about disparities due to systemic racism. And in other countries it can be based on your caste – whatever the discrimination is that is baked into the system.  

Claire Henson: High-quality education is linked to all these other factors that you mentioned, such as structural racism and general societal inequalities. Working to ensure that everyone within and across countries has access to high-quality education will do a lot to reduce other social inequalities as well. We’re not claiming here to know the exact mechanism by which education reduces mortality. But you’re right in pointing out that it’s a complex web of factors, and it will be really fascinating to try to disentangle [what is] driving this reduction in mortality that’s associated with education. We actually have more research coming up in that vein in the future.  

It’s time that policymakers look at investments in education as investments in health. 

IHME: I’m curious as to what you count as one year of education. Is vocational education also included?

Claire Henson: That’s a great question. This does include technical and vocational education in the same vein. Different countries have different educational pathways than what we’re most used to in the US. So, in our approach we took the more expansive view on education because just in the same way that a technical master’s degree could benefit your health, so would a vocational degree that improves your chances of getting a high-paying job or health care.

IHME: Let’s say a person drops out of school early in life and then goes back to school later in their life and obtains additional education. Are the extra years of education that they receive at an older age likely to lower their chances of dying prematurely?

Claire Henson: Any education at any point is helpful in reducing mortality risk.

IHME: A survey of 21 countries conducted by IHME and partners in 2023 found concerning setbacks in education amid COVID-19. How do you think that these setbacks could affect people’s health?

Claire Henson: I think it’s time that policymakers look at investments in education as investments in health. Our research shows that it’s related to mortality. And there is a lot of research to show that the quality of the education matters as well. So, in context of these concerning trends in student learning and achievement, it will be important to study this over the coming years to see the downstream effects of this interruption to schooling due to COVID-19. There are many reasons to think that, if we don’t recover from interruptions in education, it could have detrimental effects on population health in the future.

IHME: You mentioned quality of education. Can you tell us more about what you mean?

Claire Henson: We didn’t cover this in the article, but when I’m talking about quality education, I’m talking about whether students are able to meet benchmarks. Are students at the level that they should be in math or reading? In the future, we’d really like to dive more into the relationship between educational quality and mortality and not just educational attainment and mortality. Many of the benefits that we talk about when we look at a population’s educational attainment are really the results of what students are learning. There are benefits just from being in school, but there are also benefits from having high-quality education that allows you to go on further, maybe to secondary or tertiary education. Having high-quality education also allows you to get a higher-paying job, better benefits, maybe a different social sphere. So, quality and quantity are both essential when we’re talking about educational attainment.

IHME: What do you want policymakers to take away from your study? And what do you want them to do with the information?

Claire Henson: I would love policymakers to look at our study and start to understand that investments in education are investments in future population health. As we’ve shown, education is strongly related to mortality. We also know that there’s an intergenerational effect of education, meaning parents’ and caregivers’ level of education affects their children’s health. With all this evidence, increasing access to high-quality education and reducing inequalities in education should be at the forefront of policymakers’ agendas.  

IHME: In your opinion, what findings in your study were most interesting?

Claire Henson: In my opinion, it was interesting that the protective effects of education still were persistent and significant in older adults. We would typically think that once you’ve reached a certain age, other factors become more important for your mortality risk. But education was still protective. The other thing that I found interesting was that we did not find significantly different effects of education across different levels of social development globally based on Socio-demographic Index. Education is protective across all regions and levels of development.

IHME: What big questions would you like to be able to answer next in your research?  

Claire Henson: We’re excited to start researching the relationship between education and [specific causes of] mortality and moving toward adding lack of education as a risk factor in the Global Burden of Disease study. We have already started some of this work.

IHME: Are you able to say more currently about which causes of death you’re evaluating?

Claire Henson: We are starting with studying cancers, dementia, diabetes, COVID-19, and suicide, or self-harm as we call it in the Global Burden of Disease study.

In the United States, if you or someone you know is considering suicide, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988.

This conversation was edited for clarity and brevity. The study described in this article was a collaboration between IHME and the Centre for Global Health Inequalities Research (CHAIN).


Scientific Publication

Effects of education on adult mortality