The New York Times writes about a new life expectancy study:
Researchers have long documented that the most educated Americans were making the biggest gains in life expectancy, but now they say mortality data show that life spans for some of the least educated Americans are actually contracting. Four studies in recent years identified modest declines, but a new one that looks separately at Americans lacking a high school diploma found disturbingly sharp drops in life expectancy for whites in this group. Experts not involved in the new research said its findings were persuasive.
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 steepest declines were for white women without a high school diploma, who lost five years of life between 1990 and 2008, said S. Jay Olshansky, a public health professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the lead investigator on the study, published last month in Health Affairs. By 2008, life expectancy for black women without a high school diploma had surpassed that of white women of the same education level, the study found.
White men lacking a high school diploma lost three years of life. Life expectancy for both blacks and Hispanics of the same education level rose, the data showed. But blacks over all do not live as long as whites, while Hispanics live longer than both whites and blacks.
“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,” said John G. Haaga, head of the Population and Social Processes Branch of the National Institute on Aging, who was not involved in the new study.
The five-year decline for white women rivals the catastrophic seven-year drop for Russian men in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, said Michael Marmot, director of the Institute of Health Equity in London.
The actual abstract of the study sounds either a lot less informative or indicates that the study was about wider questions than the life expectancy changes of whites without high school education:
It has long been known that despite well-documented improvements in longevity for most Americans, alarming disparities persist among racial groups and between the well-educated and those with less education. In this article we update estimates of the impact of race and education on past and present life expectancy, examine trends in disparities from 1990 through 2008, and place observed disparities in the context of a rapidly aging society that is emerging at a time of optimism about the next revolution in longevity. We found that in 2008 US adult men and women with fewer than twelve years of education had life expectancies not much better than those of all adults in the 1950s and 1960s. When race and education are combined, the disparity is even more striking. In 2008 white US men and women with 16 years or more of schooling had life expectancies far greater than black Americans with fewer than 12 years of education—14.2 years more for white men than black men, and 10.3 years more for white women than black women. These gaps have widened over time and have led to at least two “Americas,” if not multiple others, in terms of life expectancy, demarcated by level of education and racial-group membership. The message for policy makers is clear: implement educational enhancements at young, middle, and older ages for people of all races, to reduce the large gap in health and longevity that persists today.
Looks to me as if the study was about the overall correlation of race and education with life expectancy figures? But perhaps not. I would have to buy the article to know for certain.
Then there's the comparison to the catastrophic seven-year drop for Russian men in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It's a valid comparison if limited to just sudden drops in life expectancy, it's not valid at all if we think of the numbers of people affected: all Russian men vs. white women without high school education in the US.
That's probably nitpicking. My guess is that the NYT reports on the drops among white women without high school diplomas because the change is novel, whereas we have long known about the different life expectancies of blacks and whites on the one hand and the correlation of education with life expectancy on the other hand.
So what is the reason for the drop in life expectancies among whites without high school diplomas?
...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.
Color me puzzled here. I'd look for changes in behavior and also in access to health insurance, keeping in mind that blacks and Hispanics (which could contain both blacks and whites) at the same level of education found their life expectancies rising.
Have white women without high school diplomas taken up smoking later than the other groups? Are overdoses of prescription drugs a relatively new thing among this group? Did poorer whites use to have better access to health insurance in the past?
What matters here are recent changes, of all types, not the absolute levels of past life expectancy, and what matters most are changes which cause death at young ages. This is because the life expectancy measure weighs those deaths more, given the larger number of lost years when a young person dies.
It could also be that the group this article discusses has changed from the past:
The decline among the least educated non-Hispanic whites, who make up a shrinking share of the population, widened an already troubling gap. The latest estimate shows life expectancy for white women without a high school diploma was 73.5 years, compared with 83.9 years for white women with a college degree or more. For white men, the gap was even bigger: 67.5 years for the least educated white men compared with 80.4 for those with a college degree or better.
Suppose that the group "white people without a high school diploma" has shrunk not only in proportion to the overall population but in proportion to all whites. If that's the case, it could be that past studies of similarly defined groups had more people with higher life expectancies in them, but that the most recent group does not, perhaps because education has become more accessible, filtering away first those with minimal risk factors?
Under this scenario the drop in the average life expectancy of that group would in some ways be a statistical artifact.
Duh. Not a topic I should have tackled...