NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Intelligence Plays a Role in Health

March 30, 2004

Health disparities between the rich and poor have long been blamed on the lack of money and resources. But in spite of increasing availability of medical care for the poor, the rich-poor health gap has widened. Two recent studies by Linda Gottfredson of the University of Delaware suggest that intelligence, rather than poverty, may help explain this gap.

Gottfredson's studies indicate that the more an individual's wealth (income, job and education level) is closely tied to their intelligence, the more it is closely tied to their health:

  • Research indicates that by age 11, children's intelligence levels can help to measure their sickness rates as adults, even accounting for their social and economic status.
  • The higher a child's intelligence level, the higher their survival chances up to about age 76, after which intelligence had less influence.
  • Intelligence did not appear to account for an adult's decision to start smoking.

The study does not suggest that low intelligence levels directly cause poor health, since many factors are involved in health disparities. However, evidence indicates that since managing one's health can be a complicated task, increased intelligence and literacy is strongly associated with better health:

  • In a health literacy test of 2,600 patients, more than 25 percent had difficulty understanding when their next appointment was, while 42 percent could not understand the instructions for taking medication on an empty stomach.
  • Chronic diseases such as asthma and diabetes require constant vigilance, such as day-to-day monitoring of blood sugar or the ability to follow medication instructions precisely, thereby requiring a certain degree of intelligence.

Gottfredson recommends that simple intelligence screening tests for patients could enable doctors to tailor instructions and recommendations to patients in a way that they understand.

Source: Karen Patterson, "Exploring the Health Gap Between Rich and Poor," Dallas Morning News, March 15, 2004; based upon Linda S. Gottfredson, "Intelligence: Is It the Epidemiologists' Elusive "Fundamental Cause" of Social Class Inequalities in Health?" Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 86, No. 1, 2004, and Linda S. Gottfredson and I.J. Deary, "Intelligence predicts health and longevity, but why?" Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 13, No. 1, 2004.

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