A broader perspective on education and mortality: Are we influenced by other people's education?
Social Science & Medicine 66 (3), 2008, pages 620-636
The objective of this study was to find out whether the educational achievements of family members and people in the municipality have an impact on a person's mortality, net of the well-known strong influence of his or her own education. Using register data, discrete-time hazard models for all-cause mortality in 1980–2003 were estimated for all Norwegian men and women born between 1950 and 1973 (i.e. age 30–53). There were 23,692 deaths during the 19.1 million person-years of follow-up. The education of a former or current spouse had the clearest beneficial effect, although own education was more important. Mortality was also negatively associated with the education of the oldest sibling and to a lesser extent with that of the sibling-in-law and father-in-law. The average education in the municipality was not generally related to mortality, but a beneficial effect was seen among men with college education. In contrast to this, parents’ education affected mortality adversely, especially among women. The data did not allow causal pathways to be identified, but possible mechanisms were discussed. For example, it was argued that others’ education may affect mortality favourably through transmission of knowledge, imitation of behaviour, economic support, and the quality of health services. In some societies, childhood health might also be an issue. On the other hand, having better-educated family members or living in a community with many better-educated people, who typically also have higher incomes, may trigger psychosocial stress. However, one should be careful to interpret the observed relationships as reflecting purely causal effects. Various unobserved factors may influence the person's choice of spouse and place of residence as well as mortality, and having parents with higher (lower) education may signal that the person has had special problems (resources) during childhood or adolescence, which also may have implications for later health.