Department of Economics, University of Houston – Clear Lake, TX, USA
Body mass index (BMI) levels in US children and adolescents have increased over the past several decades. The negative health effects of this trend are well-documented. Recent work has evaluated the potential effects on skills formation. Studies are mixed on whether there is an association between high BMI and skills outcomes, and those that estimate causal effects find none. This paper offers estimates on the causal effect of BMI-defined overweight and obesity on skills formation using two large cohorts of contemporary US children followed from infancy to 5 years and from kindergarten (6 years) to the eighth grade (14 years). Significant negative associations were observed in the random effects models for males in early life with respect to a mental skills assessment, for females during the pre-school years for reading and maths assessments, for both males and females during the schooling years for reading assessments and for females during the schooling years for maths assessments. Fixed effects models yielded a significant negative association only with respect to the latter. The implication of these findings is that any improvement in skills outcomes that may accompany reductions in obesity prevalence may depend on whether interventions are general to overall health productivity or whether they are specific to dietary and exercise behaviours.