Why are More-Educated Adults Thinner — Causation or Selection?
Paul T. Von Hippel
University of Texas at Austin - LBJ School of Public Affairs
Jamie L. Lynch
Saint Norbert College - Department of Sociology
May 8, 2012
Higher educational attainment is associated with better health, including a lower body mass index (BMI) and a lower prevalence of overweight and obesity. The association between BMI and educational attainment has been explained in different ways in different research traditions. Research on adults emphasizes a causal account in which higher education improves health and restrains BMI gain. Research on adolescents, by contrast, suggests a selection process in which adolescents with high BMI are less likely to pursue or complete higher education. We contrast these two accounts by tracking the BMI of US youths across the transition from adolescence (age 16) through the final years of education and into early adulthood (age 27). The results favor the selection account. Adolescents with lower BMI are more likely to pursue and complete higher education, largely because adolescents with lower BMI tend to have higher grades in school. The selection of lower-BMI adolescents into higher education accounts for most of the BMI gaps between more- and less-educated young adults. Net of adolescent selection, we find little evidence that educational attainment affects BMI in young adulthood — except among white women, for whom as much as one-third of the BMI gap between more and less educated women may reflect the causal effect of educational attainment on BMI.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 45
Keywords: education, health, obesity, overweight
JEL Classification: I10, I20working papers series
Date posted: May 9, 2012 ; Last revised: October 3, 2012
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