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Soc Sci Med. 2016 Dec;171:67-83. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2016.11.002. Epub 2016 Nov 3.

Limited common origins of multiple adult health-related behaviors: Evidence from U.S. twins.

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Population Studies Center and the Leonard Davis Institute for Health Economics, University of Pennsylvania, United States. Electronic address:
Department of Economics, Sociology, and Population Studies Center, University of Pennsylvania, United States.
Department of Sociology and Population Studies Center, University of Pennsylvania, United States.


Health-related behaviors are significant contributors to morbidity and mortality in the United States, yet evidence on the underlying causes of the vast within-population variation in behaviors is mixed. While many potential causes of health-related behaviors have been identified-such as schooling, genetics, and environments-little is known on how much of the variation across multiple behaviors is due to a common set of causes. We use three separate datasets on U.S. twins to investigate the degree to which multiple health-related behaviors correlate and can be explained by a common set of factors. We find that aside from smoking and drinking, most behaviors are not strongly correlated among individuals. Based on the results of both within-identical-twins regressions and multivariate behavioral genetics models, we find some evidence that schooling may be related to smoking but not to the covariation between multiple behaviors. Similarly, we find that a large fraction of the variance in each of the behaviors is consistent with genetic factors; however, we do not find strong evidence that a single common set of genes explains variation in multiple behaviors. We find, however, that a large portion of the correlation between smoking and heavy drinking is consistent with common, mostly childhood, environments. This suggests that the initiation and patterns of these two behaviors might arise from a common childhood origin. Research and policy to identify and modify this source may provide a strong way to reduce the population health burden of smoking and heavy drinking.


Alcohol consumption; Genes; Health-related behaviors; Schooling; Smoking; Twins

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