Life Expectancy Drops for Uneducated White Women

According to recent studies, white Americans lacking a high school diploma are not living as long as previous generations. But the sharpest decline was seen amongst the women in this group, who have lost five years off of their life expectancy since 1990. It is being attributed to "more risky behavior" than their ancestors, like single motherhood, prescription drug abuse, and smoking.

While four different studies of mortality data in recent years identified a "modest decline" in life expectancy, a new one—from a public health professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and published last month in Health Affairs—that separately evaluated Americans that did not graduate from high school found a steep drop for whites in this group, particularly with women. However, life expectancy for blacks and Hispanics with the same level of education rose.

There's no concrete explanation for the magnitude of the decline in the life expectancy of less-educated white women, but at least one author of the study, James Jackson, theorizes that it could be due to the their behavior, pointing to rise in smoking amongst the group and a spike in prescription drug overdoses that has disproportionately affected white women with low levels of education. Additionally, childbirth outside of marriage has soared for the demographic, and the pressures of single motherhood could be taking a toll on their overall health.

One of the more troubling reasons for the drop, though, is that the group has less access to health care than ever before, as there has been a steady increase in less-educated Americans living without the umbrella of health insurance. Nearly half of working-age adults without a high school diploma are also uninsured. Women in this group who are dying at an earlier age (73.5 years, compared with 83.9 years for white women with a college degree) simply cannot afford to seek treatment for illness.

Image via Johan Swanepoel/Shutterstock

Life Expectancy Shrinks for Less-Educated Whites in U.S. [NYT]