Our partner’s level of education can have a positive impact on our own health

By Emily Reynolds

There are many factors that impact our health, from our finances to our emotions to the way we work. Education is one such factor, with research suggesting that higher levels of education can lead to better health and even a longer life. But what about the education of your partner?

This is the subject of a new study from an Indiana University team, published in the Journal of Health and Social Behaviour. The researchers find that people’s own health is positively associated with their spouse’s level of education, suggesting that education and other factors such as knowledge, skills and finances can be seen as shared resources.

The team used data from a longitudinal study first administered to graduating high school seniors in Wisconsin in 1957 and at various points until 2011. Siblings of these graduates were also surveyed multiple times between 1977 and 2011, and spouses and sibling’s spouses in 2004 and 2006. Surveys were completed via the phone and mail.

For this study, surveys from 2004 to 2006 were most relevant. The team looked at the educational attainment of the original participants (as well as their spouses, their siblings and their siblings’ spouses), measured by years spent in education. Participants and siblings also characterised their own health, indicating whether it was “very poor”, “poor”, “fair”, “good” or “excellent”, and answered retrospective questions about their health before marriage, up to the age of 16. Finally, participants indicated whether or not they had ever smoked and for how long.

All this data allowed the researchers to look at pairs of siblings, to see how the education level of each of their spouses impacted their health. The benefit of this analysis is that it makes it less likely that any differences in health could be the result of hard-to-measure differences in social upbringing: after all, siblings are likely to have had a very similar upbringing. And the team found that spousal education was indeed a significant predictor of self-reported health: a sibling whose spouse had a higher level of education tended to report better health. This remained the case when adjusting for other factors that the team could measure, such as participants’ own education, social background, and health status before and after marriage.

The authors suggest that high levels of education provide shared social, intellectual, emotional, and financial resources (though this also depends on a person’s ability to share those resources with others) — things like higher levels of emotional intelligence, particular skills or knowledge, or more money. So although an individual’s own level of education is clearly important for their health, they also reap the benefits of their partner’s education.

Interestingly, the effects varied by gender: for women, self-reported health was more closely tied to their spouse’s education than for men. The team suggests this may have something to do with the time period the study took place — women in this sample had lower levels of education and lower occupational achievements than the men, suggesting that their male spouse’s resources were more likely to have a shared impact.

This also points to a limitation of the paper: the time period of the study may limit its generalisability to more modern relationships. Future work on this topic could explore whether the increased effect in women would still persist in today’s somewhat more equal world.

Crossover Effects of Education on Health within Married Couples

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest

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