New research by Esther Friedman of the RAND Corporation and Robert Mare of UCLA finds that parents of college grads live two years longer than parents whose kids didn't graduate high school. That two-year bump in life expectancy for parents of the most-educated kids is surprisingly large - it amounts to about two-thirds of the longevity benefit of running every day.
Even more surprising: your kids' educational attainments have a bigger effect on your life expectancy than your own schooling. While sending your kid to college adds two years to your life relative to letting them flunk out of high school, getting a college degree yourself only adds 1.7 years to your life compared to not having a high school degree.
"In terms of the likelihood of dying at each time period in our study, the effects are actually even stronger for adult children's educational attainments than one's own level of education," Friedman told me via email.
Friedman and Mare examined more than 25,000 individuals tracked in the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative sample of Americans aged 51 and over, from 1992 to 2006. They found that the effect of children's education on parents' life expectancy was not just coincidence - it was robust even after controlling for the parents' own socioeconomic resources.
The authors discovered that the relationship between children's education and parents' lifespan "is more pronounced for deaths that are linked to behavioral factors and that may be more preventable: most notably, chronic lower respiratory disease and lung cancer ." This suggests that college-educated children are able to influence their parents' behavior in positive ways: "Highly educated offspring may directly improve their parents’ health by convincing them to change their health behaviors." The child, in other words, becomes the parent.
Because of the strong correlation between education and income, college-educated adults are also better-equipped to provide care for their parents in old age. "Offspring who themselves need assistance because of poor health or limited financial resources are less likely to provide for their parents," the authors write. "Those with more education, on the other hand, have more resources and more flexible jobs, both of which may make them more likely to provide care."
Moreover, individuals with more schooling are likely able to provide better care to their parents, "in part because of greater access to and more familiarity with doctors, health research in the media, and comfort with the Internet."
Federal spending on the elderly and the young is often held to be an either-or proposition: do you prioritize health and comfort in retirement, or opportunity and education in youth? Current federal spending is heavily weighted toward the old - a 2012 Urban Institute report found that "an elderly person receives close to seven federal dollars for every dollar received by a child."
Friedman and Mare's research suggests there may be a smarter way to spend on the old and the young. I asked Friedman if it made more sense, in some cases, to allocate more funds to improve the education of younger generations, with the understanding that this would have spillover benefits for their parents' generation.
"Absolutely," she said. "Improving the education of younger generations could potentially improve the health of two generations of the family (the younger generation as well as their parents). This is something that policy makers could consider when evaluating the potential impact of a program."
Hat tip to the Pew Research Center's indispensable Fact Tank blog for highlighting this research.