Education is a key element of life. So much so, that according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an individual’s level of education can make a big difference in life expectancy.

The OECD’s ‘Health at a Glance 2019’ study found that, based on data from 23 OECD countries, “Mortality rates are almost four times higher for less educated prime-age men, and about twice as high for less educated prime-age women, compared to those with tertiary education”. Prime-age refers to those aged 25 to 64 years old. So why does education have such a profound impact on health and life expectancy?

Traditionally, discrepancies in life expectancy have been thought to be based on economic factors – the wealthier a country, the higher an individual’s income, the longer their life expectancy. But studies in the 1980s found that literacy rates also played a role, with research indicating that increasing literacy rates drive higher life expectancies than increases in wealth. More recent studies have backed up the initial research, finding stronger links between education and life expectancy.

Income does still play a role, and there is a causal relationship between higher levels of education and higher wage earning potential. Higher earners are better placed to afford the tools for a healthier lifestyle, for example gym equipment and more nutritious diets. Additionally, a more secure career and financial status reduces stress levels. Stress can cause both mental and physical health problems.

Away from finance, better education helps individuals to learn more about healthy lifestyle patterns and choices. Increased learning can give individuals a clearer understanding of how the body works, how certain foods help and others hinder, how activities such as smoking can develop health problems over time, and best practice guidance for preventing the spread of disease. The Covid-19 pandemic has given us first hand insight into the impact of education, as the world has learnt disease suppression through hygiene, social distancing, protective equipment, testing and other means of preventing the spread of the virus.

Good education can also improve neighbourhoods and communities. Neighbourhoods with poorer educational resources tend to have fewer amenities, higher unemployment and can be economically marginalised. They can also be disproportionately located in inner cities, where pollution, airborne chemicals and other industrial effects can damage health.

Education is itself also important for developing the scientific and healthcare knowledge required to tackle illness. Without a strong educational foundation, the next generation of doctors, scientists and healthcare professionals may not have the tools to rise to the challenge of curing cancer, finding vaccines for illnesses like Covid-19, or solving the mystery of illnesses like HIV/AIDs.

As such, education has both a direct and an indirect impact on the health of the world. Through better understanding, we can learn how to look after ourselves, our families and our communities. Passing on that knowledge and improving on that knowledge, are key factors when looking at ways to improve society for all humanity.