The warnings started when I was in junior high (now called middle school). My parents, both of whom were in the first generation of our family to go to college, started warning me that if I didn't quit fooling around at school and do my homework I might not get a degree. And without a degree, I might not get a job.
Warnings like those wash right off the back of most 11- or 12-year-olds, so I didn't feel the need to change my behavior. Looking back, I think there was one thing they could have said that would have made me sit up and pay attention: Not getting an education could kill me. That actually happens to be true. Of course, my parents didn't know that then, and neither did anyone else. But a lot of recent research is finding exactly that.
Causation vs. Correlation
When I first started looking at the studies showing the connection between education, health, and premature death, I thought the whole idea was absurd. I've been writing about men's health for more than a decade, and it's well known that women outlive men.
But could the simple fact of having a college degree make you healthier or live longer? The answer is yes--and the problem is getting worse. Take a look at the table below, which is from a report by the National Center for Health Statistics called "Health, United States, 2011: With Special Feature on Socioeconomic Status and Health." As you'll see, in 1996, a 25-year-old man with a college degree would have expected to live 7 years longer than a guy the same age who didn't finish high school (for women, that gap was 6 years). Twenty years later, in 2006 (that's the most recent data available), the man with the degree would expect to outlive the one without the high school diploma by 9 years (8 for women).
Okay, that's interesting. But how does it work? Well, it turns out that my parents were right. In general, if you've got a college degree, you'll probably get a better-paying job than if you didn't finish high school. You'll also probably have better benefits, which makes it more likely that you'd get a regular physical, get age-appropriate health screenings, not smoke, exercise more, and see a doctor if you had some health problem.
Given that education and income go hand in hand, here are two more charts that show the health gap between people with more education or more income and those with less of both.
Michael Grossman of the National Bureau of Economic Research has done extensive research into the connection between education and health and sums it up quite nicely: "Years of formal schooling completed is the most important correlate of good health."
But Could It Kill You?
Okay, so not finishing high school and not getting a bachelor's degree increases the chances that you'll have some health problems. But does that necessarily translate into increasing the chances that you'll die? University of Colorado researcher Patrick M. Krueger, along with colleagues from the University of North Carolina and New York University, looked into that question. They analyzed reams of data from the U.S. Census and other sources and estimate that in 2010, 145,243 deaths were attributable to individuals not having graduated high school or earned a GED. Put a little differently, that's about the same number of deaths that could be saved "if all current smokers had the mortality rates of former smokers," says Krueger. They also estimated that 110,068 deaths among people who started college but didn't finish could have been avoided had they gone on to earn their bachelor's degree.
As a country, nearly 40 percent of us are at risk of dying prematurely. In 2012, 10.7 percent of Americans ages 25-34 didn't have a high school diploma or a GED, and another 28.5 percent had started college but not finished their degree.
Of course, getting a college degree isn't magic, and there are plenty of people who dropped out of college or didn't go at all, including Bill Gates, Rush Limbaugh, Lady Gaga, Mark Zuckerberg, Lebron James and dozens of other athletes, and the creators of WordPress, Mashable, and Tumblr. But those people are the exception. For those of us who are mere mortals, education is really serious stuff.
If you haven't finished high school, stop reading this and go back to school. If your child hasn't graduated or seems to be heading toward dropping out, email this article (or print it out if you're old fashioned enough to own a printer) and help him or her come up with a plan to graduate high school and get at least a bachelor's degree. Making sure your family is well educated could very well be the best thing you can possibly do for them.