How to life

What Class Rank Says About Health

Do straight-A students live longer?

Researchers have long known that education and good health are inextricably linked. Numerous studies have found that people with more years of schooling and higher education enjoy better health, over all, than those with less. But in a fascinating new report, investigators found that it is not just the number of degrees or years of education that make a difference, but another factor — class rank.

The findings come from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, which has been following more than 10,000 people who graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957. Those students who finished in the top 25 percent of their high school class were healthier, decades later, than the ones who finished in the bottom quarter. When they were all in their early 60s, those who had finished in the top quartile were, over all, half as likely to have experienced the declines in health that their peers who graduated in the lowest quartile were experiencing. Asked to assess their health on a scale from ”excellent” to “poor,” the top students ranked their overall health higher, and they were only half as likely to report having a chronic ailment like diabetes, heart disease or respiratory illness.

“What we’ve seen all along in other studies is the link between attainment — years of schooling — and health,” said study author Dr. Pamela Herd, associate professor of public affairs and sociology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “Here there’s a link between health and actual academic performance.

“Even among those who each had 12 years of education, the person who performed better had better health,” she said. “That’s new.” The study was published online in The Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

Now Dr. Herd, whose research is supported by the National Institute on Aging, is trying to figure out just what it is about class rank that seems to promote good health. Past research suggests people with a higher education get better jobs and make more money than their peers with less schooling, so they can afford to live in safer neighborhoods, eat a healthier diet, go to doctors, maybe join a gym. Jobs requiring more education also tend to involve less physical wear and tear and are less likely to subject workers to toxic fumes and other occupational hazards; they also carry more job security. Educated people also tend to have better habits: fewer smoke, fewer are obese, and more are physically active. And if they do develop a chronic disease like diabetes, they tend to be better at managing it.

But why would grades matter? One explanation is that the same psychological characteristics that make for a hardworking student — like conscientiousness, dependability, good study habits and following the rules — also shape healthy behaviors. But when Dr. Herd examined personality surveys the graduates of 1957 filled out, controlling for variables like family background and childhood health, she didn’t find a strong correlation with health status.

She’s convinced there’s something about the actual mastering of academic material that’s vital — not the algebra and United States history per se, but the process of developing critical thinking skills and improving cognitive function.

“The people who do better in high school — they learn more, they’re more engaged, they’re active learners, and that probably plays out across people’s lives,” Dr. Herd said. “They may have actually potentially learned how to learn more effectively, and that could affect things like how much you keep up with the latest innovations on how to improve your health, both medically and through your behavior.”

There’s a limit to what people can do to maintain and improve their health, she acknowledged, and we tend to oversimplify the extent of our control, “but these skills may be reflective of what we can do.”

December 15, 2010
NY Times
By Roni Caryn Rabin