Life Expectancy Declines for Less-Educated Whites

By McCarton Ackerman 09/21/12

Drug ODs and smoking are thought to be major reasons why less-educated white people have lost years of life expectancy.

The smoking gun? Photo via

Life expectancy for the least-educated white people in the US is falling—and drug abuse and smoking are among the leading suspected causes. White women without a high school diploma lost an average of five years of life expectancy from 1990-2008, to 73.5 years, shows a study published in Health Affairs magazine that was led by S. Jay Olshansky, a public health professor at the University of Illinois. White men in the same category lost an average three years' life expectancy, to 67.5 years, during the same period. Life expectancy rates for black and hispanic people in the same category meanwhile increased; by 2008, that of black women without high school diplomas surpassed white women of the same education level for the first time.

“We’re used to looking at groups and complaining that their mortality rates haven’t improved fast enough, but to actually go backward is deeply troubling,” says John G. Haaga, head of the Population and Social Processes Branch of the National Institute on Aging, who wasn't involved in the study. The reasons behind the decline in life span of this section of the population aren't yet known for certain, but James Jackson, director of the Institute of Social Research at the University of Michigan and an author of the study, says that white women with low education levels may exhibit more risky behavior than previous generations. Overdoses from prescription drugs amongst whites have rocketed since 1990—the biggest change among this population in decades—while smoking rates among white and black women without high school diplomas have also increased. The proportion of working-age adults without high school diplomas who have no health insurance also rose to 43% in 2006—up from 35% in 1993. These numbers are a stark contrast to the mere 10% of college graduates without insurance.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.