Disentangling the interplay between genes, cognitive skills, and educational level in adolescent and young adult smoking – The TRAILS study

Heiko Schmengler, Albertine J. Oldehinkel, Wilma Vollebergh, Joëlle A. Pasman, C.A. Hartman, Gonneke Stevens, I.M. Nolte, Margot Peeters

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Recent studies suggest that smoking and lower educational attainment may have genetic influences in common. However, little is known about the mechanisms through which genetics contributes to educational inequalities in adolescent and young adult smoking. Common genetic liabilities may underlie cognitive skills associated with both smoking and education, such as IQ and effortful control, in line with indirect health-related selection explanations. Additionally, by affecting cognitive skills, genes may predict educational trajectories and hereby adolescents’ social context, which may be associated with smoking, consistent with social causation explanations. Using data from the Dutch TRAILS Study (N = 1581), we estimated the extent to which polygenic scores (PGSs) for ever smoking regularly (PGSSMOK) and years of education (PGSEDU) predict IQ and effortful control, measured around age 11, and whether these cognitive skills then act as shared predictors of smoking and educational level around age 16, 19, 22, and 26. Second, we assessed if educational level mediated associations between PGSs and smoking. Both PGSs were associated with lower effortful control, and PGSEDU also with lower IQ. Lower IQ and effortful control, in turn, predicted having a lower educational level. However, neither of these cognitive skills were directly associated with smoking behaviour after controlling for covariates and PGSs. This suggests that IQ and effortful control are not shared predictors of smoking and education (i.e., no indirect health-related selection related to cognitive skills). Instead, PGSSMOK and PGSEDU, partly through their associations with lower cognitive skills, predicted selection into a lower educational track, which in turn was associated with more smoking, in line with social causation explanations. Our findings suggest that educational differences in the social context contribute to associations between genetic liabilities and educational inequalities in smoking.
Original languageEnglish
Article number116254
Pages (from-to)1-13
Number of pages13
JournalSocial Science & Medicine
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2023


  • Adolescence
  • Cognitive skills
  • Educational level
  • Polygenic scores
  • Smoking
  • Young adulthood


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