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November 07, 2012
Life expectancy declines among poor, less educated Americans

After almost a century of increases, the life expectancy of less educated Americans is declining, according to a major study conducted by the University of Illinois at Chicago.

According to a review of trends between the years 1990 and 2008, the life expectancy of white Americans who did not graduate from high school has declined by an average four years, one of the largest decreases on record in the modern era.

The sharpest decline was seen among white women without high school diplomas, where a decline of five years was recorded during the 18-year study period.  On average, less educated men lost three years during that period.

The University of Illinois investigation indicates that life expectancy for less educated white males is now 67.5 years; for their female counterparts, it is now 73.5 years.  On the other hand, the comparable rate for Americans with a college degree or more is now 80.4 years and 83.9 years, respectively.

The life expectancies of Hispanic and African Americans either increased slightly or remained relatively stable during that period.

The study, which was published in the August 2012 edition of Health Affairs magazine, warns of the emergence of “two Americas” in terms of public health:  one less educated with life expectancies comparable to those experienced in the 1950s and early 1960s, and one accented by higher education, better living standards and longer lifespans, comparable to those experienced in Canada and Europe.

“These gaps have widened over time and have led to at least two “Americas,” if not multiple others, in terms of life expectancy, demarcated by level of education and racial group membership. The message for policy makers is clear: implement educational enhancements at young, middle, and older ages for people of all races, to reduce the large gap in health and longevity that persists today,” writes lead investigator and University of Illinois Professor S. Jay Olshansky in Health Affairs magazine.

While three previous studies by the American Cancer Society, Harvard University and the University of Colorado also warned of declining life expectancies among the less educated, the latest findings are highlighted by the sharpest declines recorded to date.

The loss of five years of life among white women rivals the seven-year fall recorded for Russian men following the collapse of the Soviet Union, according to the Institute of Health Equity of London, England.

“There’s an enormous issue of why,” says Harvard Professor David Cutler, author of that university’s 2008 review of life expectancy trends.  “It’s puzzling, and we don’t have a great explanation.”

“Something is going on in the lives of disadvantaged white women that is leading to some really alarming trends in life expectancy,” adds Harvard Professor and author of an earlier study Jennifer Kara Montez.

Theories for the drop in life expectancy vary.  Among them are:  increases in rates of overdoses of prescription drugs among the poor; an increase in smoking rates among less educated women; and a sharp decline of less educated working adults with health insurance.

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