Family Matters

Straight As in High School May Mean Better Health Later in Life

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Class rank is important for more than just wowing college admissions officers and securing bragging rights. According to new research, the better your grades were in high school, the healthier you are years later.

It’s not the first time that education has been associated with physical well-being — more degrees equal better health — but a study published in the December issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior shows that it’s not only more schooling but performance that makes a difference. (More on Time.com: Digital Diagnosis 2010: The Most Popular Health Stories of the Year)

“If you look at two people with high school degrees, the person with better grades is healthier later in life,” says Pamela Herd, an associate professor of public affairs and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Relying on data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, which has tracked more than 10,000 high school graduates from Wisconsin’s Class of 1957, Herd found that the higher a person’s class rank, the more likely they were to report “excellent” or “very good” health when they were in their early 60s. They were also more likely to report fewer chronic conditions.

The participants’ self-reporting bodes well for them down the road, says Herd. Asking people to assess their health “is predictive of mortality,” she says. “Studies have found individuals are better at predicting their own mortality risk than their doctors would be.”

Researchers have interviewed the 1957 grads six times since they marched down the aisle to “Pomp and Circumstance.” In the 1970s, when they were in their 30s and 40s, the questions emphasized family, work and social lives. By the early 1990s, researchers inquired about psychological well-being and health. Now they’re embarking on a seventh round of interviews. (More on Time.com: Many Elderly Men Are Still Having Sex, And Many Want More)

Why do good grades correlate with better health? Herd answers honestly; she doesn’t know. But she’s got her hypotheses, which include the possibility that A-students are more conscientious — not only about academics but about their health as well. Not only did they buckle down in high school, but that self-discipline may have led them to steer clear of tobacco and get plenty of exercise. Without psychological data dating to their high school selves, though, it’s tough to necessarily link the two.

There’s another possibility too: perhaps the skills required to excel in school — critical thinking, for example — may help good-graders make wise decisions about their health care. (More on Time.com: Study: Dating Violence Is Common Among Teenagers)

Herd is continuing to try to suss out a clearer explanation. In the meantime, if you’re in high school — or know someone who is — urge them to hit the books. It’s the heart-smart thing to do.

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