New research has found that, while life expectancy for Americans is rising overall, those with less than a high school education lag far behind others with more education. This disparity is most pronounced when taking race into account.
"The most highly educated white men live about 14 years longer than the least educated black men," said S. Jay Olshansky, professor of epidemiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health and lead author of the study. "The least educated black women live about 10 years less than the most educated white women."
One of the most striking findings of the study, which was published last month in the journal Health Affairs, is that the life expectancy for white women with less than 12 years of education has actually fallen since 1990. Women with less than 12 years of education can now expect to live to age 73.5, where in 1990 that number was four years higher. White women with a college degree or more can expect to live to 83.9.
The reasons for this drop in life expectancy aren't certain, but The New York Times' report on the study quotes researchers as stating that prescription drug overdoses, higher rates of smoking, obesity, and a lack of health insurance may be part of the cause.
The study looked at life expectancy by race, sex, and education from 1990 through 2008. The results were profound. The life expectancy for white men with less than 12 years of education was also found to have dropped over that period, by around 3 years. White men with a college degree or better can expect to live to 80.4, while those who don't graduate high school can only expect to live 67.5 years.
To put things in perspective, Olshansky pointed out that life expectancy for less-educated Americans is similar to that of Americans in the 50's, 60's, or 70's. Less-educated black men have a life expectancy similar to the average in 1954, black women 1962, white women 1964, and white men 1972.
"It's as if Americans with the least education are living in a time warp," said Olshansky. "There are essentially two Americas."
The researchers concluded that education and socioeconomic status are "extremely important" variables in determining life expectancy. As such, they suggest that lifelong education is important to closing the gap between how long poor and rich Americans live.
Olshansky can be heard speaking about his research below, in a video provided by the University of Illinois at Chicago.