July 29, 2014

PAA journal: Parents of better-educated kids live longer

Credit: istockphoto
Credit: istockphoto

Still another reason to send your children to college: You’ll live longer.

At least that’s what sociologists Esther M. Friedman and Robert D. Mare found when they examined the association between how far a child goes in school and how long their parents live.

Writing in the latest issue of the journal Demography, published by The Population Association of America (PAA), Friedman and Mare found that parents of college graduates lived about two years longer on average than those whose children didn’t graduate from high school.

In fact, moms and dads seem to benefit from every additional level of their child’s education. In other words, parents of a college graduate lived slightly longer on average than those whose child had attended college but did not graduate. And both of those sets of parents lived longer than the parents of a child with only a high school degree or less education.

Friedman and Mare base their conclusions on an analysis of data collected for the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a longitudinal panel study that every two years surveys an approximately representative sample of more than 26,000 adults over the age of 51. In addition to collecting personal data about each individual, the study included questions about the participants’ children, grandchildren and children-in-law.

The researchers then merged that data with the federal government’s National Death Index and found that 7,863 participants had died since the study began in 1992. When they compared those who had died with the sample of “survivors,” they found a telling difference: “56% of [survivor’s] offspring have some college or a college degree, in contrast to only 50% of offspring for those respondents who died during the study period.”

Friedman and Mare then tested the apparent relationship between longevity and children’s education by controlling for both parents’ schooling and family income. They found that parents with children who had at least a college degree died, on average, at age 71 while those whose children did not finish high school died at age 69, after accounting for parents’ education and income.

They also discovered that when it comes to living longer, your child’s gender matters. Having a girl adds to parents’ lifespans, more so than having a boy. And moms seem to benefit more than dads from having a daughter in the family.

“These analyses show that having daughters is indeed more beneficial for mothers’ survival than for fathers’” they wrote. “However, we found no significant differences in the effects of sons’ and daughters’ schooling” so the researchers did not explore this relationship further in this study.

So why do the parents of better-educated kids live longer? The researchers hypothesize one reason could be that better-educated children may influence their parents to adopt healthier lifestyles that, in turn, would add years to the parents’ lives.

In fact, Friedman and Mare found that the parents of better-educated children were less likely to smoke and more likely to say they quit smoking than the parents of less-educated offspring. Similarly, parents with better-educated kids exercised more than other parents.

But the researchers allow that parents may be trying to keep up with their healthy kids, “It is also possible that parents of highly educated offspring might have a stronger motivation to take care of themselves and stay healthy than those with less-successful offspring,” they wrote.

Esther M. Friedman is an associate behavioral and social scientist at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, California. Robert D. Mare is distinguished professor of sociology at the University of California—Los Angeles.

Topics: Education, Health

  1. Photo of Rich Morin

    is a senior editor focusing on social and demographic trends at Pew Research Center.


  1. Cleora A.+Hoekje3 years ago

    It seems to me that a better education might be a case of a better job, and thus less exposure to harmful elements. Better education for children seems to be a natural expectation of better educated parents.

  2. Nick3 years ago

    It’s not that the parents live longer because they send their kids to college, it’s just that the kind of people that send their kids to college are usually healthier and happier. If you send your kids to college and expect to live longer because of that, you’re mistaken. This article is misleading.

  3. Patrick3 years ago

    We have to live longer to pay off the undergrad and graduate loans!

  4. Paul McG3 years ago

    I would question whether this finding is correct. Having scanned the paper I see no evidence that the authors corrected for “Immortal time bias/immortality bias” i.e. they did not account for children who do not progress as far in education due to the early death (or early illness – ultimately leading to a premature death) of their parent.
    In that respect they may have the arrow of causation exactly wrong.

    i.e. if you die (or experience severe illness) before your children complete their full education – then this will impact on whether your children will stay in education (and the level they achieve).

    This type of problem has occurred previously in similar types of studies including the widely publicised (but mistaken) claims such as: “winning an Oscar leads to longer life” , “becoming Pope leads to longer life”, “becoming prime minister leads to longer life”, “becoming professor..” etc. In all of these cases the odds of achieving the goal (Oscar, Pope, Prime ministership, professorship) itself depends on achieving a great age – and usually having good health in middle/later age.

    1. Rich Morin3 years ago

      Great observation! I do not know the answer. But I have forwarded your comment to the lead researcher and we will post her reply when we receive it.

  5. Calvin3 years ago

    College graduates typically come from wealthier families than do students that do not finish high school, so it seems more likely that this is just a reflection of family wealth, which plays a big role in nutrition and healthcare choices that lead to longevity. Wealthier people live longer than less wealthy people, so of course parents of college graduates live longer than parents of high school only graduates/dropouts (because they are wealthier, not because their children have anything to do with it).

    1. Rich Morin3 years ago

      You’re exactly right–lots of good things flow from wealth. The researchers realized this and controlled for family income and parents’ educations in their statistical model, essentially taking into account the blessings of being born into relative affluence. The effect of children’s education was independent of these factors. So even wealthy parents should send their kids to college.