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Do well-educated children make their parents healthier?

By Chris A Garrington, on 6 January 2022

by Fran Abrams

Adults who have reached higher levels of education have parents who live longer – even when comparing families from similar social backgrounds. But is this a consequence of education? A study using Census data sheds new light on the issue.

Those with better education have better health and live longer – this has been known for a long time. A more recent finding is that this extends across generations: those with better education also have healthier parents. And in times of ageing population and stark generational divides, policies with intergenerational benefits are urgently needed. Improving the education of a younger generation at the same time as enabling an older generation to live longer and healthier lives: if this was possible, it would be very attractive for policymakers.  Moreover, framing education as a family resource could help convince older generations that such investments in young generations are beneficial even for them.

There is a big question about this, however: Is it really adult children’s education that improves parental health, or is it just that healthier parents have better-educated children?  Research using the ONS Longitudinal Study addresses this key question.

Two data sets

The researchers used two sets of UK data to examine the question: the 1958 birth cohort called the National Child Development Study (NCDS) and the ONS Longitudinal Study (ONS-LS) based on English and Welsh census data.

First, using the NCDS, a birth cohort data set of all British children born in one week in 1958, they established that in Great Britain, better-educated adult children do have parents who live longer.  The results of this first analysis were striking: Even when comparing parents of similar social class and education, parents whose children stayed in education until age 21 lived two years longer, on average, than the parents of children who left school at age 16.

Other studies have shown similar results: Parents of better-educated children are less likely to suffer depression, for instance, and have fewer disabilities. But few studies have used natural experiments, i.e. constellations that mimic a random assignment of individuals into treatment and control groups in this case, pairs of parents and children, where the children  were born just before or just after the cut-off date at which the school-leaving age was raised.

The ONS Longitudinal Study thus allowed the researchers to answer the crucial question as to whether parental longevity was a consequence of children’s education rather than just a correlate. They used census information from 1971 to analyse the health and longevity of 56,000 mothers and 49,000 fathers whose children were born between 1949 and 1965 and whose children therefore benefited from the educational reform  which raised the mandatory school-leaving age from 15 to 16 years in 1972.  The ONS-LS, which links the census to the civil registration system, the NHS registration systems, and the cancer registries, meaning researchers knew when the parents observed in 1971 died and what their cause of death was.

Six causes of death

Researchers examined six causes of death linked to behaviours: lung cancer, accidents and self-harm, liver disease, ischaemic heart disease, mental and behavioural causes of death, and causes generally deemed preventable. Researchers could thus ask if those parents whose children stayed in education lived heathier lives due to possible changes in health behaviours.

Generally, parents whose children stayed in education longer due to education reform were not found to be healthier than those who didn’t. The study concludes no overall causal link exists between adult children’s education and parental health. This result differed from research in developing countries such as Tanzania, where a causal link had been found.

So why was a link between adult children’s education and parental health not found in England and Wales? Researchers suggest three possible reasons: First, universal health care provided by the NHS might have helped those whose children had fewer years of education. Second, the UK’s strongly class-based society might have benefited those from middle class homes more than educational changes. And third, the focus on the raising of the school-leaving age from 15 to 16 years cannot identify whether going to university, for instance, might have had a more direct effect on ones’ parents’ health behaviour.

Future studies should look at how other factors and educational transitions might affect parents, the researchers say. These might focus on whether having male or female children affects parents’ health, and on whether reforms which enable more young people to go to university might lead to a healthier older generation in those families.

In other words, they conclude, it is too early to dismiss the notion that children’s education can have a direct causal effect on the health and longevity of their parents, yet the evidence for England and Wales so far does not support the notion.

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