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Soc Sci Med. 1997 Oct;45(8):1231-9.

Does intelligence account for the link between maternal literacy and child survival?

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Institute for Health Sector Development, London, U.K.


The strong and consistent correlation between maternal education and child health is now well known, and numerous studies have shown that wealth and income cannot explain the link. Policy-makers have therefore assumed that the relationship is causal and explicitly advocate schooling as a child health intervention. However, there are other factors which could account for the apparent effect of maternal education on child morbidity and mortality, one of which is intelligence. This paper examines the effect of maternal intelligence on child health and looks at the degree to which it can explain the literacy associations with child survival and risk of malnutrition. The data are from a retrospective cohort study of 1294 mothers and their 7475 offspring, of whom 454 were women who had learned to read and write as adults in Nicaragua's literacy programme, 457 were illiterate, and 383 had become literate as young girls attending school. The women's intelligence was tested using Raven's Coloured Progressive Matrices. Acquisition of literacy was strongly related to intelligence. Statistically significant associations with maternal literacy were found for under five mortality, infant mortality, and the risk of low mid-upper-arm circumference (MUAC) for age, before and after controlling for a wide range of socio-economic factors. Under five, child (one to four years), infant and post-neonatal mortality plus the risk of low height for age were significantly correlated with intelligence, but only with infant and under mortality rates did the association remain significant after controlling for socio-economic factors. A significant interaction between intelligence and literacy for under five mortality was due to literacy having a strong effect in the women of low intelligence, and a negligible effect among those of high intelligence. This study provides evidence that intelligence is an important determinant of child health among the illiterate, and that education may have the greatest impact on child health for mothers of relatively low intelligence.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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