Life spans of the least educated are shrinking; steepest decline among white women, biggest gap among white men

Here’s some bad news for states like Kentucky, which are overwhelmingly white and have large shares of the population that did not graduate from high school: A new study “that looks separately at Americans lacking a high school diploma found disturbingly sharp drops in life expectancy for whites,” and four previous studies support that case, reports Sabrina Tavernise of The New York Times.

“The reasons for the decline remain unclear,” writes Tavernise, “but researchers offered possible explanations, including a spike in prescription-drug overdoses among young whites, higher rates of smoking among less-educated white women, rising obesity, and a steady increase in the number of the least-educated Americans who lack health insurance.”

Dr. S. Jay Olshansky

White women without high-school diplomas are at particular risk, said S. Jay Olshansky, a public health professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the lead investigator on the study, published last month in Health Affairs. They lost a whopping five years of life expectancy between 1990 and 2008, he said.

That’s big. To understand just how big: The average life expectancy for white women without a high-school diploma was 73.5 years, compared with 83.9 years for white women with a college degree or more. For white men, the gap was even bigger: 67.5 years for the least educated white men compared with 80.4 for those with a college degree or better.

The slump is now the subject of an inquiry by the National Academy of Sciences.
“There’s this enormous issue of why,” said David Cutler, an economics professor at Harvard University. “It’s very puzzling and we don’t have a great explanation.”

And it is yet another sign of distress in one of the country’s most vulnerable groups during a period when major social changes are transforming life for less educated whites. (Read more)

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