“She is one of a demographic—white women who don’t graduate from high school—whose life expectancy has declined dramatically over the past 18 years. These women can now expect to die five years earlier than the generation before them. It is an unheard-of drop for a wealthy country in the age of modern medicine. Throughout history, technological and scientific innovation have put death off longer and longer, but the benefits of those advances have not been shared equally, especially across the race and class divides that characterize 21st–century America. Lack of access to education, medical care, good wages, and healthy food isn’t just leaving the worst-off Americans behind. It’s killing them.
“The journal Health Affairs reported the five-year drop in August. The article’s lead author, Jay Olshansky, who studies human longevity at the University of Illinois at Chicago, with a team of researchers looked at death rates for different groups from 1990 to 2008. White men without high-school diplomas had lost three years of life expectancy, but it was the decline for women like Crystal that made the study news. Previous studies had shown that the least-educated whites began dying younger in the 2000s, but only by about a year. Olshansky and his colleagues did something the other studies hadn’t: They isolated high-school dropouts and measured their outcomes instead of lumping them in with high-school graduates who did not go to college.
“The last time researchers found a change of this magnitude, Russian men had lost seven years after the fall of the Soviet Union, when they began drinking more and taking on other risky behaviors. Although women generally outlive men in the U.S., such a large decline in the average age of death, from almost 79 to a little more than 73, suggests that an increasing number of women are dying in their twenties, thirties, and forties. “We actually don’t know the exact reasons why it’s happened,” Olshansky says. “I wish we did.”
“Most Americans, including high-school dropouts of other races, are gaining life expectancy, just at different speeds. Absent a war, genocide, pandemic, or massive governmental collapse, drops in life expectancy are rare. “If you look at the history of longevity in the United States, there have been no dramatic negative or positive shocks,” Olshansky says. “With the exception of the 1918 influenza pandemic, everything has been relatively steady, slow changes. This is a five-year drop in an 18-year time period. That’s dramatic.”
“Researchers had known education was linked to longer life since the 1960s, but it was difficult to tell whether it was a proxy for other important factors—like coming from a wealthy family or earning a high income as an adult. In 1999, a Columbia economics graduate student named Adriana Lleras-Muney decided to figure out if education was the principal cause. She found that each additional year of schooling added about a year of life. Subsequent studies suggested the link was less direct. Education is strongly associated with a longer life, but that doesn’t mean that every year of education is an elixir. “It is the biggest association, but it is also the thing that we measure about people the best,” Lleras–Muney says. “It is one of those things that we can collect data on. There could be other things that matter a lot more, but they’re just very difficult to measure.”
“As is often the case when researchers encounter something fuzzy, they start suggesting causes that sound decidedly unscientific. Their best guess is that staying in school teaches people to delay gratification. The more educated among us are better at forgoing pleasurable and possibly risky behavior because we’ve learned to look ahead to the future. That connection isn’t new, however, and it wouldn’t explain why the least-educated whites like Crystal are dying so much younger today than the same group was two decades ago.”