We aim to disentangle the relative impact of (i) cognitive ability, and (ii) education on health and mortality using a structural equation model suggested by Conti et al. (2010). We extend their model by allowing for a duration dependent variable (mortality), and an ordinal educational variable. Data come from a Dutch cohort born between 1937 and 1941, including detailed measures of cognitive ability and family background in the final grade of primary school. The data are linked to the mortality register 1995-2011, such that we observe mortality between ages 55 and 75. The results suggest that at least half of the unconditional survival differences between educational groups are due to a ‘selection effect’, primarily on the basis of cognitive ability. Conditional survival differences across those having finished just primary school and those entering secondary education are still substantial, and amount to a 4 years gain in life expectancy, on average.