White Americans without high school diplomas have seen their life expectancy fall by four years since 1990, according to results from a recent Health Affairs study. The New York Times reports that the drop was sharpest among less-educated white women, whose life expectancy dropped by five years, as opposed to a three year decline for less-educated men.
And the chasm between the most-educated and least-educated whites’ life expectancy is particularly striking. White men and women without high school diplomas now live an average of 67.5 years and 73.5 years respectively, while the most-educated white men and women — those with a college degree or more — live 80.4 years and 83.9 years respectively, a difference of over a decade for both genders.
Although the study does not provide definitive answers as to the cause for the decline, researchers believe that broad health trends and a general lack of access to health insurance are crucial underlying factors:
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. [...]
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.
It is unsurprising that America’s least-educated populations struggle to find health coverage. The vast majority of Americans access health insurance through employer-provided plans, while Medicaid and other public programs provide for most of the remaining insured population. But according to the Department of Labor, the unemployment rate among Americans without high school diplomas was 14.1 percent in 2011, and their median incomes were $451 per week. Taken side-by-side, these statistics imply that less-educated populations are either unemployed, or working jobs that do not offer health benefits but pay just enough to make them ineligible for Medicaid.
“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,” John G. Haaga, a researcher at the National Institute on Aging, remarked. Fortunately, President Obama’s health care reform law — which emphasizes preventative care measures, insurance subsidies, and an expansion of the Medicaid program — could help improve public health among the country’s poorest and least-educated populations to help reverse this trend.