Education, age, and the cumulative advantage in health

J Health Soc Behav. 1996 Mar;37(1):104-20.


The positive association between educational attainment and health is well established, but the way in which the education-based gap in health varies with age is not. Do the health advantages of high educational attainment and disadvantages of low educational attainment diverge or converge with age? The cumulative advantage perspective predicts a diverging SES gap in health with age, but past evidence does not allow us to accept or reject the hypothesis. We address this issue in two samples, cross-sectionally and over time, with three health measures. The first data set consists of a 1990 telephone interview of a national probability sample of U.S. households. There are 2,031 respondents, aged 18 to 90. The second is a national probability sample of U.S. households in which 2,436 respondents aged 20 to 64 were interviewed by telephone in 1979 and reinterviewed in 1980. We find that the gap in self-reported health, in physical functioning, and in physical well-being among people with high and low educational attainment increases with age. The health advantage of the well educated is larger in older age groups than in younger. Health advantages of high income and disadvantages of low income also diverge with age, but household income does not explain education's positive effect.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Activities of Daily Living
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Educational Status*
  • Health Status*
  • Humans
  • Linear Models
  • Middle Aged
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • United States