International Journal of Public Health

, Volume 60, Issue 5, pp 599–608 | Cite as

Educational expectations and adolescent health behaviour: an evolutionary approach

  • Ross Whitehead
  • Dorothy Currie
  • Jo Inchley
  • Candace Currie
Original Article



Previous research finds adolescents expecting to attend university are more likely to demonstrate health-promoting behaviour than those not expecting university attendance. This suggests public health improvements may be achievable by encouraging adolescents to adopt academic goals. We investigate confounders of this putative relationship, focusing on those identified by evolutionary theory.


Multi-level logistic regression was used to analyse the 2010 Scottish Health Behaviour in School-aged Children survey (n = 1834).


Adolescents anticipating university attendance exhibited higher levels of engagement in health-protective behaviours (fruit and vegetable consumption, exercise and tooth brushing) and were more likely to avoid health-damaging behaviours (crisps, soft drink and alcohol consumption, tobacco and cannabis use, fighting and intercourse). These relationships persisted when controlling indicators of life history trajectory (pubertal timing, socioeconomic status and father absence). Pupil level: gender, age, perceived academic achievement and peer/family communication and school level: university expectations, affluence, leavers’ destinations, exam performance and school climate were also adjusted.


Encouraging adolescents to consider an academic future may achieve public health benefits, despite social factors that might otherwise precipitate poor health via an accelerated life history trajectory.


Temporal orientation Academic expectations Adolescent Health behaviour Risk behaviour Life history theory 



The authors would like to thank Dr. Willem Frankenhuis and three anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript. This research was funded by NHS Health Scotland. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of NHS Health Scotland as commissioners of the work or the University Court of the University of St Andrews as undertakers of the work. The authors acknowledge the international Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) research network that developed the study’s research protocol in collaboration with the WHO regional office for Europe. Candace Currie, University of St Andrews is the HBSC International Coordinator and Oddrun Samdal, University of Bergen is the HBSC Data Manager.

Supplementary material

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Supplementary material 1 (PDF 530 kb)


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Copyright information

© Swiss School of Public Health 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ross Whitehead
    • 1
  • Dorothy Currie
    • 1
  • Jo Inchley
    • 1
  • Candace Currie
    • 1
  1. 1.Child and Adolescent Health Research Unit, School of Medicine, Medical and Biological Sciences BuildingUniversity of St AndrewsSt AndrewsScotland, UK

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