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Working Paper

Human Capital Spillovers and Health: Does Living Around College Graduates Lengthen Life?

National Bureau of Economic Research

April 26, 2024


Equally educated people are healthier if they live in more educated places. Every 10 percent point increase in an area’s share of adults with a college degree is associated with a decline in all-cause mortality by 7%, controlling for individual education, demographics, and area characteristics. Area human capital is also associated with lower disease prevalence and improvements in self-reported health. The association between area education and health increased greatly between 1990 and 2010. Spatial sorting does not drive these externalities; there is little evidence that sicker people move disproportionately into less educated areas. Differences in health-related amenities, ranging from hospital quality to pollution, explain no more than 17% of the area human capital spillovers on health. Over half of the correlation between area human capital and health is a result of the correlation between area human capital and smoking and obesity. More educated areas have stricter regulations regarding smoking and more negative beliefs about smoking. These have translated over time into a population that smokes noticeably less and that is less obese, leading to increasing divergence in health outcomes by area education.

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