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Your College Major Predicts Midlife Health

Business and biology majors tend to be in strong physical shape a quarter-century after graduation. Psychology majors, not so much.

A physical check-up often begins with a series of questions: What foods do you eat? Do you smoke? Getting any exercise?

New research suggests another telling indicator could be added to that list: What was your college major?

A first-of-its-kind study finds one's chosen field of undergraduate study "is a statistically significant, and substantively important, predictor of health status in midlife."

"Compared to adults who majored in one of the most health-advantaged fields—business—adults majoring in some fields, such as psychology/social work and law/public policy, have nearly twice the odds of poor health," reports a research team led by Syracuse University sociologist Jennifer Karas Montez.

The researchers find the four majors associated with the best midlife health are architecture/engineering, biology/life sciences, business, and—here's a surprise—communications/journalism. Perhaps chasing after big stories keeps us scribes in shape.

It has long been established that people with more education tend to be healthier. This new study, in the journal Social Science and Medicine, offers confirmation; it finds the odds of suffering from poor health steadily decrease as educational achievement rises.

But does one's major matter? To find out, the researchers analyzed data from the nationally representative American Community Survey.

Their sample consisted of 3.7 million United States-born adults between the ages of 45 and 64—the time of life when "physical functioning problems start to manifest." (Tell me about it.)

Participants noted whether they had difficulty walking or climbing stairs, dressing or bathing, or performing errands. A "yes" answer in any of those categories resulted in a grade of relatively poor health.

The researchers focused on the 667,362 participants who earned a bachelor's degree, but went no further in their education. They noted each person's college major, which they placed into one of 15 categories.

"We found substantial differences in health across majors," Montez and her colleagues report. "Two majors are particularly disadvantaged in midlife. The odds of poor health are 1.9 times greater among psychology/social work and law/public policy majors compared to business majors."

Indeed, those two majors—along with a third, "health"—were associated with "particularly poor health." Irony aside, the researchers argue this is likely due to several factors. Psychology majors tend to suffer from "high unemployment and low earnings"; they also "tend to score high on neuroticism," which is "robustly associated with poor physical and mental health."

Law/public policy majors, they add, often enter the field of law enforcement, while health majors often become nurses. Both professions are high-stress and often entail working odd hours, both of which can contribute to poor health.

Oddly, though, the same can be said for members of the media—and stress levels tend to be high, given the current instability of the industry. Perhaps we journalists warrant a separate study to determine what we're doing right.

Montez and her colleagues caution that they have discovered associations, not proof of causality. But they make a convincing case that some majors nudge people into healthier lifestyles than others.

Their findings might even inspire a cautionary country song: Mammas, don't let your babies grow up to be psych majors.