Childhood advantage predicts future migration from UK, research finds

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People who emigrate from the UK are more likely to have been healthier and more socially advantaged as children, according to a new study based on the 1946 British birth cohort.

Researchers from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing at UCL (LHA) and the University of Toronto analysed information on more than 5,000 people born in England, Scotland and Wales in 1946 who are taking part in the National Survey of Health and Development (NSHD). Around 400 had emigrated before the age of 20 with more than 500 leaving after that age.

They found that future emigrants were less likely to have been born with a low birthweight or to have had a serious illness before the age of 5. They were also taller, on average, at age 6 than the children who stayed in the UK.

The study’s authors explained that immigrants to the U.S., Canada, and Australia tend to be healthier and live longer than non-immigrants in their host countries, once adjustments have been made for income and education.

Professor Esme Fuller-Thomson, of the University of Toronto, added: “There has been a great deal of speculation as to why this ‘healthy migrant effect’ exists. We’ve found that the childhood health of future migrants from the UK, who were born in 1946, was much better than those who did not move to other countries.”

The study’s authors also discovered that those who left the UK came from socioeconomically advantaged families. They were more likely to have had fathers who were professionals and mothers who had a higher level of education. At 4 years old their housing quality was better, and at 6 years old their parents were more likely to own their home. Their parents also showed more interest in their children’s school progress.

Professor Diana Kuh, Director of LHA and NSHD, explained: “Childhood socioeconomic position has been shown in the NSHD and many other studies to be highly associated with adult health. This study supports the ‘healthy migrant’ hypothesis for migration between high-resource countries.”

Read the full paper

An investigation of the healthy migrant hypothesis: Pre-emigration characteristics of those in the British 1946 birth cohort study by Esme Fuller-Thomson, Sarah Brennenstuhl, Rachel Cooper, Diana Kuh was published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health in December 2015