People who leave education with fewer qualifications are prone to age more quickly, scientists said on Wednesday.
Researchers from Britain and the United States examined the length of sections of DNA known as telomeres from around 450 people taking part in a long-term health study and found that people who did less well at school had shorter telomeres, suggesting they may age faster.
Telomeres are sections of DNA that cap the ends of chromosomes, protecting them from damage and the loss of cell functions associated with aging. Shorter telomeres are thought to be an indicator of faster aging.
"The key implication of this study backs up one of the main messages to have come out of long-term studies..that your experiences early in life can have important influences on your health," said Stephen Holgate, of Britain's Medical Research Council, which part-funded the research.
He said that as with all observational research, it was difficult to establish the root causes of these findings, but said the study provided evidence "that being educated to a higher level can benefit you more than in the job market alone."
The study participants were separated into four education groups: those who had no qualifications at all, those who left formal education after exams at around 16 years of age, those who left after exams at around 18 years, and those who earned a degree from a university or other higher education institution.
The research was published in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity on Wednesday.
The results showed that people with lower educational achievements had shorter telomeres, indicating that they may age faster, and the study also offered strong evidence that this is not affected by people's social and economic status later in life, as was previously thought, the researchers said.
"We already know from previous research that people with poor backgrounds are prone to age more quickly," said Andrew Steptoe, a professor of psychology at the British Heart Foundation which part-funded the study.
"Education is a marker of social class that people acquire early in life, and our research suggests that it is long term exposure to the conditions of lower status that promotes accelerated cellular aging."