Children’s schooling may improve parental health, according to researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Heidelberg Institute of Public Health, University College London and the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI).

Using longitudinal data from the AHRI population research site in rural KwaZulu-Natal, researchers found that parents whose offspring had higher schooling had improved life expectancy. Specifically, each additional year of children’s schooling was associated with a 5% lower risk of death for mothers, and a 6% reduction for fathers. This was true even after allowing for the parents’ own education and economic wellbeing.

“These findings suggest that formal schooling may not only generate benefits for individuals or their children, but could also have large ‘upstream’ impacts on the preceding generation,” said Jan-Walter De Neve, lead author of the study and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Global Health and Population at the Harvard Chan School.

There are several possible reasons why children’s schooling may protect the health of their parents. Previous international research has shown that children could, for instance, recompense their parents for schooling investments received in childhood, based on their increased income arising from their education. More highly educated children may also be better able to communicate health knowledge, skills, or norms acquired at school to their parents. However, no studies had so far assessed the role of children’s schooling on parental survival in lower-resource settings, with limited social services for the elderly, and where adult mortality is very high.

For the new study, researchers at Harvard Chan School and University College London used data from the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI). The authors followed nearly 18,000 parents for a 13-year period in rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and controlled for a range of socio-economic and demographic characteristics of both the parent and child.

“It is difficult to isolate the effect of children’s schooling on parental health from the many co-factors such as family background, psychological traits, and shared genetic composition,” senior author, Guy Harling, explained, “In the absence of experimental studies, longitudinal studies can provide evidence to guide policy.”

Research highlights:

• Investing in offspring’s education may improve parental survival.
• We follow 17,789 parents over a 13-year period in rural South Africa.
• Higher offspring schooling is associated with increased parental survival
• Strongest association for mothers is for communicable disease mortality
• Strongest association for fathers is for injury mortality

Read the full research paper here.