Education and health

More educated adults enjoy better health. Nearly everyone assumes this means that acquiring education improves health. That assumption is implicit in the phrase the “education gradient in health” or the statement that education is a “social determinant of health.”

Our research suggests a different explanation: healthier adolescents become more educated. Among 15-year-olds, those who will later finish high school and college already rate their health better than those who will drop out. This accounts for nearly all of the health gap between more and less educated adults at age 31.

education gradient in SRH

The same is true of overweight. 48-year-old women with a college degree weigh 15 pounds less, on average, than women who dropped out of high school. Yet two-thirds of that difference was already present 30 years earlier, when today’s 48-year-olds were 18 and just graduating from high school if they had not dropped out.

Among women, weight predicts education more strongly than education predicts weight.

BMI in NLSY79, women


  • Source: Benson, Rebecca and von Hippel, Paul T. and Lynch, Jamie L. (2017). Does More Education Cause Lower BMI, or Do Lower-BMI Individuals Become More Educated? Evidence from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979. Social Science and Medicine, Also available as an SSRN working paper:
  • See also: von Hippel, P. T., & Lynch, J.L. (2014). “Why are educated adults slim—causation or selection?” Social Science and Medicine 105: 131-139. PubMed 24524908. Also available as an SSRN working paper 2054843.