More education equals longer life

Despite advances in health care and increases in life expectancy overall, Americans with less than a high school education have life expectancies similar to adults in the 1950s and 1960s, a new report finds.

“The most highly educated white men live about 14 years longer than the least educated black men,” says S. Jay Olshansky, professor of epidemiology in the 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.”

The research, funded by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on an Aging Society, examined life expectancy by race, sex and education and examined trends in disparities from 1990 through 2008.

“Over the last couple of decades, almost all longevity boats have risen,” said Olshansky, “but there have been some subgroups that have had a drop in life expectancy.

“It’s as if Americans with the least education are living in a time warp.”

For example, Olshansky said, the least educated black men are living in 1954, black women in 1962, white women in 1964, and white men in 1972.

One surprising finding is that white women with less than 12 years of education can expect to live five years less than their counterparts did in 1990 (a decline from age 78 to 73). Black women with less than 12 years education can expect to live to age 74, up from age 73 two decades ago.

The researchers speculate that the least educated black women are experiencing high levels of obesity, which has a delayed effect on negative health consequences, while white women may be adopting more immediately lethal behaviors such as smoking, alcohol consumption and drug use

“There are essentially two Americas,” Olshansky said, explaining that while a highly educated subgroup of the population has a dramatic increase in life expectancy, a less-educated subgroup is experienced a drop or modest increases.

Education and socioeconomic status are important variables that influence variations in longevity, the researchers said, suggesting that one of the most important ways to address these large disparities is through lifelong education.

“We must find a way to bring these subgroups of the population back into the present,” Olshansky said.

The study is published in the August issue of the journal Health Affairs.

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