Targeting education to reduce obesity : at what life stages are interventions effective?
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Obesity is a serious policy problem, contributing an estimated $113.9b to medical expenditures in the US. Like many health outcomes, obesity is not distributed at random in the population but is concentrated amongst the less educated. Given this, many have suggested that if more people were to become highly educated, the obesity epidemic might be curtailed. However, this assumes that the association between education and obesity is a causal one, which is not necessarily the case. Moreover, previous research in lifecourse epidemiology suggests that education may occur too late in the lifecourse to have any effect on health trajectory. I perform three empirical studies to examine whether there is a plausibly causal relationship between education and body weight, and examine whether there is a point at which it is too late to alter body weight trajectories using education. All three studies use data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 (NLSY79), a complex random sample of the US civilian population aged 14-22 in 1978 and followed for more than three decades. In the first study, a cross-sectional regression finds a relationship between education and BMI. I use fixed effects models with individual slopes to test whether gaining a qualification leads to a change in BMI while controlling for individual heterogeneity, and find there is no effect. In study two, I consider the effects of education completed “on-time” with education completed “late”. Fixed effects models show that women who earn bachelor’s degrees on time benefit from lower BMI, but there is no benefit for late degrees or other qualifications and men do not similarly benefit. The third study stratifies the analysis by early-life circumstances and finds that in a cross-sectional analysis at age 45 only the most advantaged strata benefited from having earned a bachelor’s degree. In fixed effects models, gaining a degree did not lead to a change in BMI for any group. Collectively, these findings cast doubt on education’s viability as a policy tool to address obesity, and suggest that at some point in the lifecourse it is too late to alter BMI trajectories by improving socio-economic status.