The study suggests that doing a three year degree course at university reduces the risk of heart disease by around a third.
The findings, published by The BMJ, provide the strongest evidence to date that increasing the number of years that people spend in the education system may lower their risk of developing coronary heart disease by a “substantial” amount.
Many studies have found that people who spend more time in education have a lower risk of developing coronary heart disease.
But the association may be due to ‘confounding’ from other factors, such as diet or physical activity.
To better understand the nature of the association, a team of international researchers from University College London (UCL), Oxford University and the University of Lausanne in Switzerland set out to test whether education is a risk factor for the development of coronary heart disease.
They analysed 162 genetic variants already shown to be linked with years of schooling from 543,733 men and women, predominantly of European origin, using a technique called mendelian randomisation.
The researchers said the technique uses genetic information to avoid some of the problems that afflict observational studies, making the results less prone to confounding from other factors, and more likely to be reliable in understanding cause and effect.
Doing a three year degree course at university reduces the risk of heart disease by around a third
More specifically, 3.6 years of additional education, which is similar to an undergraduate university degree, would be predicted to translate into about a one third reduction in the risk of coronary heart disease.
Doctor Taavi Tillmann, of UCL, said: “Genetic predisposition towards longer time spent in education was also associated with less likelihood of smoking, lower body mass index (BMI), and a more favourable blood fat profile.”
He suggested that the factors could account for part of the association found between education and coronary heart disease.
Dr Tillmann said: “The results remained largely unchanged after further sensitivity analyses and are in line with findings from other studies, and the effect of raising the minimum school leaving age.”
He added: “Increasing the number of years that people spend in the educational system may lower their risk of subsequently developing coronary heart disease by a substantial degree.
“These findings should stimulate policy discussions about increasing educational attainment in the general population to improve population health.”
Associate Professor Brent Richards, of McGill University in Canada, said of the findings: “They are strong and robust to sensitivity tests, which probe most of the potential biases in the results.
“When taken together with other observational studies and quasi-experiments, their conclusions are convincing.”