Life expectancy for white women in the U.S. who dropped out of high school has taken “an unheard-of drop” in the last two decades and researchers haven’t been able to determine why.
According to a new study published in the Journal of Health Affairs, uneducated white women experienced a five-year decline in life expectancy from 1990 to 2008.
There are obvious explanations for a lower life expectancy for high school drop-outs, including the fact that higher education leads to higher income and thus to longer lives. But the steep drop is nearly unprecedented for any demographic in U.S. history.
“We actually don’t know the exact reasons why it’s happened,” said lead researcher S. Jay Olshansky, who researches human longevity at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
“If you look at the history of longevity in the United States, there have been no dramatic negative or positive shocks,” Olshansky said. “With the exception of the 1918 influenza pandemic, everything has been relatively steady, slow changes. This is a five-year drop in an 18-year time period. That’s dramatic.”
Poor diet, less access to medical care, heart disease and stress are likely playing a role in the decline. The economy itself could be fueling the drop; fewer jobs for people without a diploma goes hand-in-hand with poverty and declining health.
“Hope is lowered,” James Jackson, a public-health researcher at the University of Michigan, told Mint Press News. “If you drop out of school, say, in the last 20 years or so, you just had less hope for ever making it and being anything. The opportunities available to you are very different than what they were 20 or 30 years ago. What kind of job are you going to get if you drop out at 16? No job.”
“It is an unheard-of drop for a wealthy country in the age of modern medicine,” wrote Monica Potts, senior writer at the American Prospect. “Throughout history, technological and scientific innovation have put death off longer and longer, but the benefits of those advances have not been shared equally, especially across the race and class divides that characterize 21st-century America. Lack of access to education, medical care, good wages and healthy food isn’t just leaving the worst-off Americans behind. It’s killing them.”
A report from the World Health Organization found that the average life expectancy gap between rich and poor across the globe is widening.
“The fact that non-communicable diseases strike these women at an earlier age in less developed countries has major implications, as these deaths are devastating for individuals, families and societies,” said study co-author Dr. John Beard, the director of WHO’s Department of Ageing and Life Course.