Media Briefings

Childhood Education Makes Us Smarter in Old Age, But Not Happier

  • Published Date: May 2012

The amount of schooling we receive when we are teenagers has a lasting effect on our mental ability well into old age, with the result that we have a better memory and hold sharper conversations.

That is one the findings of research by Professor James Banks and Dr Fabrizio Mazzonna. But the study, published in the May 2012 issue of the Economic Journal, finds no evidence that more schooling has any effect on the quality of life of our later years.

The researchers analyse the effect of the 1947 increase in the compulsory school leaving age in England from 14 to 15. This reform affected a very large proportion of the population aged 14 in that year, decreasing by around 50% the proportion of people who left full-time education before age 15 in comparison with the previous year.

Data on the memory and verbal fluency of the generation who were around that age at the time (and are now in their late 70s) have been collected every two years between 2002 and 2008. This makes it possible to compare the mental ability of those who were 14 just before the reform became effective and who left school at that age with those who turned 14 just after and thus stayed in school for an extra year.

The authors use these data, which come from a large and representative survey of older adults in England, to establish the effect of an additional year of schooling on cognitive abilities later on in life, more specifically 55-60 years later.

The main findings of their study are that:

  • Childhood schooling levels have a positive and strong causal effect on subsequent old age memory and verbal fluency.
  • The effect is stronger for men than women.
  • There is no evidence of statistically significant effects on subjective assessments of either late-life wellbeing outcomes or quality of life.

    The authors argue that the extra year of schooling raises an individual’s labour market opportunities, which in turn has positive effects on mental ability. The fact that their study finds a stronger effect for men than for women is consistent with women’s lower participation in the workforce in the second half of the twentieth century.

    These findings are especially relevant in the context of an ageing society, where preventing or delaying the age-related decline in physical and cognitive abilities is becoming a fundamental target for health, labour and fiscal policy.


    Notes for editors: ‘The Effect of Childhood Education on Old Age Cognitive Abilities: Evidence from a Regression Discontinuity Design’ by Fabrizio Mazzonna and James Banks is published in the May 2012 issue of the Economic Journal. View article.

    Fabrizio Mazzonna is at the Munich Center for the Economics of Aging at the Max Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy. James Banks is at the University of Manchester and the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

    For further information: contact Fabrizio Mazzonna on +49-89-38602-333 (email:; James Banks on +44-161-275-4473 (email:; or Romesh Vaitilingam on +44-7768-661095 (email:

Media Coverage

BBC News No link between time in education and happiness, study suggests

The Telegraph Staying on at school boosts memory - but not happiness