Headstart pre-school classroom, Chicago, IL.
Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Management Planning Institute (website:

Education has been shown to be associated with decreased risk of all-cause and coronary artery disease mortality (Hardarson and Gardarsdottir, 2001), and improved physical functioning and self-rated health (Ross and Mirowsky, 1999). Part of this effect is due on the profound effect of education on personal income. Each additional year of educational attainment is associated with an increase in earnings (Day and Newburger, 2002). In a study of the effects of high school mathematics courses on health, Rose and Betts (2001) found that net earnings at age 28 increase with each additional credit unit of high school math, with a 2% increase in earnings for each unit of algebra courses, and a 6% increase for each unit of calculus. In turn, increased income is associated with decreased mortality, particularly at incomes below the national median (Backlund et al., 1999). Education also benefits health through its effect on health-related behaviors. Individuals with more education are more likely to exercise, less likely to smoke, and more likely to be moderate drinkers (Ross and Mirowsky, 1999). Well-educated women are less likely to be overweight (Ross and Wu, 1995). Although some part of the associations between education and earnings and health may be spurious or explained by reverse causality, that is higher socio-economic status and/or better health can confer educational advantages, most researchers agree that more education can lead to improvements in health. Thus, interventions that succeed in boosting educational achievement should eventually yield improvements in health.

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Studies that examine education typically do so by asking the respondent to report levels of educational attainment.  These levels include:

  • No high school diploma,
  • High school diploma,
  • Some college,
  • College graduate (bachelor degree),
  • Advanced degree

The most dramatic effect of education on income and health outcomes is seen when comparing the most educated with the least educated, however differences are seen even when comparing more comparable individuals with some college versus those who have graduated college with a degree, for example.

Downstream Health Effects

There are a number of health benefits to higher education. In general, more educated individuals have a lower all-cause mortality rate than those who are less educated and they report having lower morbidity from the most common acute and chronic diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, hypertension, cholesterol, emphysema, diabetes, and asthma. Better educated individuals are substantially less likely to report that they are in poor health, and less likely to report anxiety or depression. They also spend fewer days in bed or not at work because of disease, and they have fewer functional limitations.

Policies and Other Determinants

There are a number of policies at various levels that aim to improve education for children and young adults. Some of the large program areas include:

  • Improving quality of Kindergarten – 12th grade schooling.  A target area is often the recruitment and preservation of good teachers.
  • Expanding access to higher education. For example, this may entail policies to make higher education more affordable by expanding availability of loans and initiating new tax credits for college or job training.
  • Improving access to pre-school. Early childhood education, such as Head Start, may be expanded to young children to prepare them for kindergarten.