The Effect of Education on Old Age Cognitive Abilities: Evidence from a Regression Discontinuity Design


  • Corresponding author: Fabrizio Mazzonna, Max Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy, Amalienstrasse 33, D-80799 Munich, Germany. Email:;

  • We are grateful to Janet Currie and Franco Peracchi, as well as two anonymous referees, for comments on earlier drafts of this work. We are also grateful to the audience of the 2010 RAND Workshop on Comparative International Research Based on HRS, ELSA and SHARE. Banks is grateful to the Economic and Social Research Council and the US National Institute on Ageing for funding his research on this project. Data from the ELSA were supplied by the ESRC Data Archive. ELSA was developed by researchers based at University College London, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the National Centre for Social Research, with funding provided by the US National Institute on Ageing and a consortium of UK government departments coordinated by the Office for National Statistics. Responsibility for interpretation of the data, as well as for any errors, is the authors’ alone.


In this article, we exploit the 1947 change to the minimum school-leaving age in England from 14 to 15, to evaluate the causal effect of a year of education on cognitive abilities at older ages. We use a regression discontinuity design analysis and find a large and significant effect of the reform on males’ memory and executive functioning at older ages, using simple cognitive tests from the English Longitudinal Survey on Ageing as our outcome measures. This result is particularly remarkable as the reform had a powerful and immediate effect on about half the population of 14 years olds. We investigate and discuss the potential channels by which this reform may have had its effects, as well as carrying out a full set of sensitivity analyses and robustness checks.