Study explores correlation between education and the leading causes of preventable death

Cornell researchers find that high school graduates are 26 percentage points less likely to smoke than non-graduates

In a groundbreaking new study, forthcoming in the July issue of the Journal of Labor Economics, researchers from Cornell University use rich microdata from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth in 1979 to analyze the correlation between high school completion and the two leading preventable causes of death – smoking and obesity. They find that high school graduates are significantly less likely to smoke than non-graduates and GED recipients.

"Many previous studies of the schooling-health link focus on general measures of health outcomes. Our study instead focuses on key health behaviors as specific pathways by which schooling can lead to differences in health outcomes," explain Donald Kenkel, Dean Lillard, and Alan Mathios. "The results suggest that completing high school yields large apparent health returns in the form of less smoking. Both men and women who report completing high school are much less likely to currently smoke."

For example, 47% of male high school dropouts in the researchers' sample are current smokers, while smoking among male high school completers is about 26 percentage points lower. Additionally, those who completed high school and were once smokers are more likely to have quit.

However, the researchers found little evidence that high school completion had an influence on weight. In fact, male high school completers were actually about 7 percentage points more likely to be overweight, though individuals whose parents completed more schooling tend to be lighter.

"This association is particularly strong for women…when the mother has had higher schooling," write the authors. "This pattern suggests that improperly excluding parental schooling may result in overestimates of the true causal effect of the child's schooling on health behaviors."

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Since 1983, the Journal of Labor Economics has presented international research that examines issues affecting the economy as well as social and private behavior.

Kenkel, Donald, Dean Lillard, and Alan Mathios. "The Roles of High School Completion and GED Receipt in Smoking and Obesity," Journal of Labor Economics 24:3.


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