The Functional Form of the Relationship between Educational Attainment and All-Cause Adult Mortality Risks in the United States

Jennifer Karas Montez, University of Texas at Austin
Robert A. Hummer, University of Texas at Austin

A vast literature has repeatedly documented the inverse association between education and U.S. adult mortality risks, but given little attention to identifying the optimal functional form of the association. A theoretical explanation of the association hinges on our ability to empirically describe it. Using the 1979-1998 National Longitudinal Mortality Study for non-Hispanic white and black adults aged 25-100 years, we evaluated 13 functional forms across race-gender-age subgroups to determine which form(s) best captured the association. Results revealed that a functional form that includes a linear decline in mortality risks from 0 to 11 years of education, followed by a step-change reduction in mortality risks upon attainment of a high school degree, at which point mortality risks resume a linear decline but with a steeper slope than that prior to a high school degree was generally preferred. Thus, the complex mediating pathways likely encompass both credential and pure human capital mechanisms.

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Presented in Session 33: Risk Factors Associated with Adult Mortality