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).   One mechanism through which education may benefit health is by increasing economic well-being, which in turn benefits health (Day and Newburger, 2002).  The effect of math education on lifetime earnings appears to be especially strong (Rose and Betts, 2001).   Education may also benefit health by instilling and supporting healthier 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 this research has not established the direction some causality or ruled out the possibility that these observed associations might actually be spurious, most researchers agree that more education can lead to improvements in health.

What is less clear is the research on interventions to improve educational outcomes.  Many small-scale programs have been to improve educational performance (US Dept. of Ed. What Works Clearinghouse), but when promising pilot programs are scaled up and institutionalized, expected improvements may dissipate. Educational outcomes are the product of complex social systems, involving families, communities, educational bureaucracies and long historical legacies.  Interventions implemented over one or a few years may not have sufficient and sustained effects that affect future health outcomes. 

Among promising educational interventions that are likely to have long-term health benefits, early childhood education, such as Headstart Preschool Programs, stands out.   With more than 37 years of follow-up, evaluation of the HighScope Perry Preschool program, has shown that participants at age 40 (all African Americans born into poverty) who received high quality preschool education had higher earnings, were more likely to hold a job, had committed fewer crimes, and were more likely to have graduated from high school than adults who did not have preschool (HighScope Perry Preschool Study website).

What happens during the school day can also have more immediate effects on students’ heath.  Opportunities and support for physical activity throughout the school day can decrease the risk of overweight and type II diabetes and improve students’ mental well-being.  Healthier eating options at school, nutrition education and opportunities to try different kinds of fresh fruits and vegetables can encourage healthier eating, not only among students, but among their families as well, as they share their knowledge and experience with the rest of their family.  The physical and social environment at school can also affect student health by exposing them to hazards from asthma triggers to violence.  


Day JC, Newburger EC. 2002. The Big Payoff: Educational Attainment and Synthetic Estimate of Work-Life Earnings. Current Population Reports, P23-210.  US Census Bureau. Electronic version available on-line at:

Hardarson T, Gardarsdottir M, et al. 2001. “The relationship between educational level and mortality. The Reykjavik Study.” Journal of Internal Medicine 249(6): 495-502.

High/Scope.  HighScope Perry Preschool Study.  Ypsilanti, MI:  High/Scope Educational Research Foundation.  Electronic version accessed on-line 6/29/10 at

Rose H, Betts JR. 2001. Math Matters: The Links between High School Curriculum, College Graduation, and Earnings. San Francisco: The Public Policy Institute of California. Electronic version available on-line at:

Ross CE, Mirowsky J.  1999.  Refining the association between education and health:  The effects of quantity, credential, and selectivity.  Demography 36(4):445-460.

Ross CE, Wu CL.  1995.  The links between education and health. American Sociological Review 60:719-45.

Policy Actions

  • Physical education requirements
  • Acreage requirements for school buildings
  • Funding of after-school programs
  • Early drop-out prevention/retention programs
  • Funding for Headstart preschool programs
  • School accountability programs
  • Changes to the length of the school day or school year

External Links