Life expectancy among the least-educated white Americans has fallen markedly over the past two decades, according to recent research, including some studies by Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) experts. A front-page article in the September 20, 2012 New York Times outlined these disturbing findings and included speculation by researchers as to possible causes—such as higher smoking rates among less-educated white women, rising obesity, and an increase in the number of the least-educated Americans without health insurance.
According to the Times, the latest estimates show that white women without a high school diploma lost five years of life between 1990 and 2008; their life expectancy was 73.5 years, compared with 83.9 years for white women with a college degree or more. White men without a high school diploma lost three years of life—fewer than white women—but the gap between their life expectancy and that of men with college degrees or better was larger: 67.5 years vs. 80.4 years.
One of the studies cited was led by Jennifer Montez, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholar at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies. Commenting on the latest estimates, Montez told the Times, “Something is going on in the lives of disadvantaged white women that is leading to some really alarming trends in life expectancy.” She said that smoking rates—which have increased among women without a high school diploma—are playing a role.
David Cutler, professor in the HSPH Department of Global Health and Population and Harvard Professor of Applied Economics, who wrote a 2008 paper on life expectancy declines among the least-educated white women, said of the phenomenon, “It’s very puzzling and we don’t have a great explanation.”
And Lisa Berkman, director of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, told the Times that one factor affecting the downward life expectancy trends could be the rising number of women in low-wage, often inflexible jobs—which can take a toll on health.