The least educated Americans are not living as long as they once did, and the disparities between education and race have widened.
In a study published in the journal Health Affairs, researchers examined the impact of race and education on life expectancy in the United States and discovered that the least educated Americans aren’t living as long.
“What we found is that the further you go down the education spectrum the higher your death rate is and the lower your life expectancy is,” said the study’s lead investigator, Stuart J. Olshansky, a public health professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in an interview on Friday.
Researchers examined trends in data obtained from the National Vital Statistics System and the U.S. Census Bureau from 1990 to 2008, and were startled by some of their findings.
“We saw something we didn’t expect to see,” Olshansky said. “We saw a decline in life expectancy for white women, which was a five-year drop, and a three-year drop for white men…That is not what we expected. My colleagues thought the decline would happen in minorities.”
According to the New York Times, the reasons for the decline are unclear, but researchers offered some possible explanations, including a rise in prescription drug overdoses among young whites, higher rates of smoking among less educated white women, increasing obesity, and a rise in the number of number of least educated who don’t have health insurance.
Hispanics, Asians and African-Americans all experienced a rise in life expectancy even at the lowest education levels, but all of those groups started at a lower life expectancy level to begin with.
The study also found that a person’s life expectancy rose dramatically if they were on the upper end of the education spectrum.
“Education is connected with a whole suite of all other desirable characteristics, such as higher income and access to health care,” Olshansky said. “And, those things simply don’t exist or don’t exist as much in the lower educated population.”
The study also said the gaps that have broadened between education and race has “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,” according to the study.