Friday, September 21, 2012

Life Expectancy Plummets for Poorly Educated Whites

Sabrina Tavernisi has provided an interesting and disturbing article in the New York Times: Reversing Trend, Life Span Shrinks for Some Whites. It has been known for some time that more highly-educated people tend to live longer. A researcher apparently took that clue and decided to interpret mortality rates by separating out those who had not graduated from high school. What was discovered was that this subgroup was not only not keeping up with the general population, but its life expectancy was actually falling—but only for whites. Blacks and Hispanics in the same educational category continued to show gains in life expectancy.

"The steepest declines were for white women without a high school diploma, who lost five years of life between 1990 and 2008, said S. Jay Olshansky, a public health professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the lead investigator on the study, published last month in Health Affairs. 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 increase in mortality in this group was not only exceptional—it was extreme.

"The five-year decline for white women rivals the catastrophic seven-year drop for Russian men in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, said Michael Marmot, director of the Institute of Health Equity in London."

This data serves to identify the extreme lack of homogeneity that exists throughout our society.

"The decline among the least educated non-Hispanic whites, who make up a shrinking share of the population, widened an already troubling gap. 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."

The population of white non-graduates has been declining across the time period covering the increase in mortality. Given that education itself is neutral in terms of health, it is likely that the high school graduation filter is actually selecting some other unhealthy factor which is more common in this subset of the population.

"The reasons for the decline remain unclear, but researchers offered possible explanations, including a spike 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."

Given the amount of money we spend on our healthcare, and the appellation "best healthcare system in the world" that we apply to it, our life expectancy is rather pathetic. Tavernise tells us that this is particularly true for women as she leads us to this data:

"The dropping life expectancies have helped weigh down the United States in international life expectancy rankings, particularly for women. In 2010, American women fell to 41st place, down from 14th place in 1985, in the United Nations rankings. Among developed countries, American women sank from the middle of the pack in 1970 to last place in 2010, according to the Human Mortality Database."

Some of the possible explanations for increasing mortality rates among the poorly educated involve unwise lifestyle decisions, like smoking, but there are things as a society that we should have been doing, but failed to do.

"The share of working-age adults with less than a high school diploma who did not have health insurance rose to 43 percent in 2006, up from 35 percent in 1993, according to Mr. Jemal at the American Cancer Society. Just 10 percent of those with a college degree were uninsured last year, the Census Bureau reported."

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