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Friday, September 21, 2012

Unexpected Drop in Life Expectancy Among Poorly Educated Whites in US

Researchers have uncovered a troubling and puzzling mortality trend--life expectancy has been dropping among the least educated non-Hispanic whites in the US. These findings were published recently in the journal Health Affairs by a team led by S. Jay Olshansky, a widely respected researcher at the University of Illinois's Chicago campus, and the story is front page news in today's New York Times and elsewhere.
The steepest declines were for white women without a high school diploma, who lost five years of life between 1990 and 2008...By 2008, life expectancy for black women without a high school diploma had surpassed that of white women of the same education level, the study found.
White men lacking a high school diploma lost three years of life. Life expectancy for both blacks and Hispanics of the same education level rose, the data showed. But blacks over all do not live as long as whites, while Hispanics live longer than both whites and blacks.
The latest estimate shows 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.
As the NY Times notes, it is not clear why this is happening. Part of the explanation may be that, fortunately, the percentage of the population without a high school education is declining, unfortunately leaving some people ever farther behind. It may also be that this is a group plagued by overuse of drugs (both prescription and otherwise). Young women in this group are apt to be working mothers with few resources to maintain good health and seek treatment when sick. Regardless of the reasons, it is clearly a troubling trend that needs to be addressed societally. Would this happen in a country with universal health care? 

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