The study, which was published last month in Health Affairs magazine, contains some generally depressing news for uneducated whites, as they are showing extreme drops in their life expectancy. The findings are turning on its head the common belief that American children would always live longer than their parents. But that’s no longer the case for white men and women without a high school diploma.
The worst decline was among white women without a high school diploma, who lost five years of life between 1990 and 2008. White men without a high school diploma lost three years of life during that same period.
By comparison, for blacks and Hispanics without a high school diploma, their life expectancy continued to rise during the same period—though blacks overall at all education levels still do not live as long as whites. Hispanics overall live longer than both whites and blacks.
Researchers aren’t clear on the reasons why uneducated whites dropped so far in life expectancy, but they posited some possible explanations, including a rise 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, according to S. Jay Olshansky, a public health professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the lead investigator on the study.
“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,” John G. Haaga, head of the Population and Social Processes Branch of the National Institute on Aging, who was not involved in the new study, told the New York Times.
Michael Marmot, director of the Institute of Health Equity in London, said the five-year decline for white women rivals the unbelievable seven-year drop for Russian men in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Though the number of Americans without a high school diploma is declining, the plight of uneducated whites and blacks is increasingly creating two vastly different worlds in America, illustrated by the enormous gap in the life expectancy between the educated and the uneducated.
The 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.
For white men, that means the acquisition of a high school diploma could potentially add 13 years onto their lives, and 10 1/2 years for white women.
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Because of these life expectancy drops, American women in 2010 fell to an embarrassing 41st place—down from 14th place in 1985—in the United Nation rankings of life expectancy in the world. Among developed countries (the 47 or so nations that the U.N. considers having developed economies—a list primarily comprised of countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and a few nations in South America, in addition to Barbados in the Caribbean), American women sank from the middle of the pack in 1970 to last place in 2010, according to the Human Mortality Database.
So despite a standard of living that American politicians seem to believe is still the best in the world, American women were last in life expectancy among developed nations.
Let us repeat that: Last.
“There’s this enormous issue of why,” said David Cutler, an economics professor at Harvard who was an author of a 2008 paper that found modest declines in life expectancy for less educated white women from 1981 to 2000. “It’s very puzzling and we don’t have a great explanation.”
There are also other signs showing that the standard of living for uneducated white women has gotten significantly worse, such as the skyrocketing of childbirth outside of marriage, which exacerbates the lack of education.
Americans without a high school diploma make up about 12 percent of the population, down from about 22 percent in 1990, according to the Census Bureau.
Professor Olshansky told the Times that while the group was now smaller, the magnitude of the drop in life expectancy was still a measure of deterioration.
“The good news is that there are fewer people in this group,” he said. “The bad news is that those who are in it are dying more quickly.”