Life Expectancy Drops Significantly for Less-Educated White Women

Life and death

September 21, 2012

Looking for another reason to pursue an advanced education? The potential for longer life expectancy could be an item to add to your list.

According to a study published by Health Affairs, those with more education appear to have longer life spans while those with less education have shorter life spans. However, there's more to it than that: race also plays a role. And as reported by The New York Times, white women who have not graduated from high school saw the steepest decline in life expectancy.

The study indicates that white women without a high school diploma saw their life expectancy decline by five years between 1990 to 2008. This demographic had a life expectancy of about 78 years in 1990 while in 2008 that fell to 73 years, reported The Huffington Post.

"We're used to looking at groups and complaining that their mortality rates haven't improved fast enough, but to actually go backward is deeply troubling," said John G. Haaga, head of the Population and Social Processes Branch of the National Institute on Aging, in The New York Times.

However, this downward trend affected not only less educated white women but also the black men, black women and white men with the least education, according to the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health. Researchers found that the least educated Americans now have life spans similar to that of the past: white women with the least education have life spans the same as white women 1964; less educated white men have life spans the same as in 1972 and black women as in 1962. For less educated black men, the life span is the same as in 1954.

"It's as if Americans with the least education are living in a time warp," S. Jay Olshansky, UIC lead author on the study, said in UIC SPH News.

While other recent studies have shown a decrease in life span for less educated white women, those declines were modest, according to The New York Times. The reason for the huge drop for less educated white women in the UIC study remains hard to pinpoint, however, various explanations are possible.

"There's this enormous issue of why," David Cutler, an economics professor at Harvard and author of a 2008 paper on life expectancies, told The New York Times. "It's very puzzling and we don't have a great explanation."

Potential reasons behind the drop in life expectancies for less educated white women include adoption of risky behaviors such as alcohol and drug use or smoking. Overdoses of prescription drugs among young white adults could also factor in, The Huffington Post points out.

On the other hand, life expectancies of the educated are growing: that of white women with a college degree increased by more than three years from 1990 to 2008, according to The Huffington Post, meaning that they can expect to live 10 years longer than female high school dropouts. The authors of the UIC study suggest that one of the ways to address the differences in life expectancy is through lifelong education.

Compiled by Maggie O'Neill


"Differences In Life Expectancy Due To Race And Educational Differences Are Widening, And Many May Not Catch Up,", August 2012, S. Jay Olshansky, Toni Antonucci, Lisa Berkman, Robert H. Binstock, Axel Boersch-Supan, John T. Cacioppo, Bruce A. Carnes, Laura L. Carstensen, Linda P. Fried, Dana P. Goldman, James Jackson, Martin Kohli, John Rother, Yuhui Zeng and John Rowe

"Life Expectancy Plunges For White High School Dropouts In U.S.,", September 21, 2012, Bonnie Kavoussi

"Life Sshrink For Least-Educated Whites in the U.S.,", September 20, 2012, Sabrina Tavernise

"More Education Equals Longer Life,"

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