Experts said the findings provide the strongest evidence so far 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.
The authors said: “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.”
Many studies have found that people who spend more time in education have a lower risk of developing coronary heart disease.
However, this association may be due to other factors, such as diet or physical activity.
It has previously been unclear if spending more time in education has any causal impact on heart disease.
Experts have questioned if staying in education could prevent it.
A team of international researchers from University College London, the University of Lausanne, and the University of Oxford set out to test whether education is a risk factor for the development of coronary heart disease.
They looked at 162 genetic variants already shown to be linked with years of schooling from 543,733 men and women, mainly of European origin, using a technique called mendelian randomisation.
This technique uses genetic information which help ensure the results are less prone to confounding from other factors.
This means they are more likely to be reliable in understanding cause and effect.
The authors found that genetic predisposition towards more time spent in education was associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease.
Specifically, the experts found 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.
“As well as better prospects in terms of employment and financial independence, this research suggests we can add improved heart health to the list of benefits staying in education longer,” said Dr Mike Knapton, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation.
“We are not shocked by these findings as we already know that spending more time in education is associated with lower rates of smoking and a lower body mass index, which are both huge risk factors of coronary heart disease.
“The research also focused on analysing people’s genetic disposition.
“This is really interesting, by looking at how your genes can lead to heart disease, we could be one step closer to discovering a new drug to treat coronary heart disease – a devastating condition that is responsible for 70,000 deaths in the UK.”
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.
The authors suggest that these factors could account for part of the association found between education and coronary heart disease.
For example, it is not fully understood how genetic variants cause changes to the length of time spent in education, and this could have introduced bias.
However, key strengths include the large sample size, use of genetic randomisation to minimise confounding.
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