State School Policies as Predictors of Physical and Mental Health: A Natural Experiment in the REGARDS Cohort

Am J Epidemiol. 2020 May 5;189(5):384-393. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwz221.


We used differences in state school policies as natural experiments to evaluate the joint influence of educational quantity and quality on late-life physical and mental health. Using US Census microsample data, historical measures of state compulsory schooling and school quality (term length, student-teacher ratio, and attendance rates) were combined via regression modeling on a scale corresponding to years of education (policy-predicted years of education (PPYEd)). PPYEd values were linked to individual-level records for 8,920 black and 14,605 white participants aged ≥45 years in the Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke study (2003-2007). Linear and quantile regression models estimated the association between PPYEd and Physical Component Summary (PCS) and Mental Component Summary (MCS) from the Short Form Health Survey. We examined interactions by race and adjusted for sex, birth year, state of residence at age 6 years, and year of study enrollment. Higher PPYEd was associated with better median PCS (β = 1.28, 95% confidence interval (CI): 0.40, 1.49) and possibly better median MCS (β = 0.46, 95% CI: -0.01, 0.94). Effect estimates were higher among black (vs. white) persons (PCS × race interaction, β = 0.22, 95% CI: -0.62, 1.05, and MCS × race interaction, β = 0.18; 95% CI: -0.08, 0.44). When incorporating both school quality and duration, this quasiexperimental analysis found mixed evidence for a causal effect of education on health decades later.

Keywords: education; mental health; physical health; quasiexperiment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • African Americans / statistics & numerical data
  • Aged
  • Educational Status*
  • European Continental Ancestry Group / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Health Status Indicators*
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Health*
  • Middle Aged
  • Schools / standards*
  • United States