Education and Health Behaviors: Understanding the Role of Cognitive and Psychological Human Capital

Amelia Karraker, University of Michigan
Pamela Herd, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Health behaviors are strongly patterned by educational attainment, but the mechanisms underlying this relationship are unclear. One potential explanation is that education fosters and reflects human capital accumulation. Human capital can impact health behaviors via cognitive skills and psychological means. Using data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study (WLS), we examine the extent to which the association between education and health behaviors (smoking, obesity) is explained by measures of cognitive (academic performance) and psychological human capital (personality traits such as conscientiousness and indicators of psychological well-being such as environmental mastery). We find that cognitive human capital measures substantially mediate the association between education and health behaviors. Cognitive and psychological human capital measures are also independently associated with health behaviors, but the relative importance of each, as well as particular measures implicated, varies by specific health behavior and life course stage examined.

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Presented in Session 52: Personality, Cognition and Health