A lack of education is as bad for life expectancy as being a smoker, a study suggests.
Researchers in the US studied people born in 1925, 1934 and 1945 to see how education levels affected their chances of dying.
They found that those who missed out on higher education tended to live shorter lives, even when allowing for other social factors.
They looked at two scenarios: people who completed education at around 18 and people who studied some years at university, without completing a degree.
They then noted causes of death, including cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Around 2.5 million people died of all causes in the US in 2010.
The researchers estimated that 5.8 per cent of this total - or 145,243 deaths – would have been prevented in 2010 if adults who did not complete their schooling at 18 had gone on to complete their high school diploma, the equivalent of passing A levels in England.
The researchers say that this is equivalent to the number of deaths that could be averted if current smokers gave up their habit.
The study found that a further 110,068 deaths could be saved if adults who completed some college courses graduated with a bachelor’s degree from university.
The researchers say there is a clear association between education and mortality, even after adjustment for other health factors, which shows that the link must be at least partially causal.
They suggest that more education means higher income and social status, enhanced cognitive development, better adherence to medical treatments, healthier behaviours, and improved social connections and psychological well-being
Virginia Chang, associate professor of public health at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Public Health said: ‘In public health policy, we often change health behaviours such as diet, smoking and drinking.
‘Education – which is a more fundamental, upstream driver of health behaviours and disparities – should also be a key element of US health policy.’
Patrick Kruege, assistant professor at the University of Colorado: ‘Our results suggest that policies and interventions that improve educational attainment could substantially improve survival in the US population, especially given widening educational disparities.
‘Unless these trends change, the mortality attributable to low education will continue to increase in the future.’
UK research in 2012 found that low levels of literacy led to higher levels of death in older adults, as they had difficulties reading basic health related information.