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Disentangling potential causal effects of educational duration on well-being, and mental and physical health outcomes.

Psychological Medicine 2023 November 16
BACKGROUND: Extensive research has focused on the potential benefits of education on various mental and physical health outcomes. However, whether the associations reflect a causal effect is harder to establish.

METHODS: To examine associations between educational duration and specific aspects of well-being, anxiety and mood disorders, and cardiovascular health in a sample of European Ancestry UK Biobank participants born in England and Wales, we apply four different causal inference methods (a natural policy experiment leveraging the minimum school-leaving age, a sibling-control design, Mendelian randomization [MR], and within-family MR), and assess if the methods converge on the same conclusion.

RESULTS: A comparison of results across the four methods reveals that associations between educational duration and these outcomes appears predominantly to be the result of confounding or bias rather than a true causal effect of education on well-being and health outcomes. Although we do consistently find no associations between educational duration and happiness, family satisfaction, work satisfaction, meaning in life, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, we do not find consistent significant associations across all methods for the other phenotypes (health satisfaction, depression, financial satisfaction, friendship satisfaction, neuroticism, and cardiovascular outcomes).

CONCLUSIONS: We discuss inconsistencies in results across methods considering their respective limitations and biases, and additionally discuss the generalizability of our findings in light of the sample and phenotype limitations. Overall, this study strengthens the idea that triangulation across different methods is necessary to enhance our understanding of the causal consequences of educational duration.

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