Life expectancy among less-educated white women is decreasing while their
better-educated peers are gaining longevity, a new study finds.
According to the researchers, joblessness is one key factor in the the trend.
The other is smoking.
"Mortality is declining for high-educated women, but is increasing for
low-educated women," said study co-author Jennifer Karas Montez, a research
fellow in the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies.
American men, regardless of education level, enjoy an increasing life
expectancy, but the mortality gap is widening between white women who didn't
complete high school and those who did, the researchers said.
From 2002 to 2006, the chances of dying for women without a high school
education were 66% higher than for women who completed high school, the
Employment and smoking are the two factors that appear to explain this
disparity, Montez said.
How the study was done
For the study, published in the June issue of the Journal of Health and
Social Behavior, Montez and her co-author collected data on more than 46
000 white women, aged 45 to 84, who took part in a national health survey from
1997 to 2006.
The women were divided into two groups: those without a high school
education, and those with at least a high school diploma.
Between 1997 and 2001, the death rate among women without a high school
education was 37% higher than for women who completed high school. But by the
years 2002 to 2006, that disparity increased to 66 percent, the investigators
To explain this finding, the researchers looked at economic factors including
employment, occupation, poverty, home ownership, health insurance and health
factors including smoking, obesity and alcohol consumption.
The two factors that stood out from the others in explaining the widening gap
were employment and smoking, the study authors noted.
"Our study found that the increasing importance of education for employment
and smoking behaviour were the most important explanations for the growing gap
in mortality risk across education levels among white women," Montez said. "We
found little support for explanations such as obesity, marriage and mental
Policies aimed at improving the health of US women should focus on improving
their social and economic circumstances, Montez said.
"The obstacles are particularly high for low-educated women, who tend to have
low-paying jobs with inflexible schedules," she said.
Employment has many benefits, such as social networks and a sense of purpose,
Montez said. It also builds self-esteem and offers mental and physical
"Access to social networks and support through employment may have become
more important in recent decades, with high divorce rates, smaller families and
geographic mobility disrupting other avenues of support," she said.
Implementing supportive work-family policies and efforts to curb smoking may
help close this life-expectancy gap, Montez said.
But focusing on the positive benefits of education and employment are key,
"It would be more effective to improve employment opportunities among women
than it would be just increasing taxes on cigarettes," Montez said. "We need to
go after the fundamental root cause of these behaviours rather than the
behaviours themselves, and employment is an important lever to accomplish
Montez noted that the recent recession didn't play a role in this study
because the data only ran up to 2006. "The recession would have hit after our
study ended," she said.
Dr David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center,
wasn't shocked by the findings. "It's not all that surprising to see that
educational disparities correlate with vocational disparities, which correlate
in turn with behavioural disparities, such as smoking," he said.
Health and social equity are indelibly linked, he stated.
"For those who accept it, and embrace epidemiology over ideology, the
availability of decent jobs and educational support may be the right medicine
for what is, in the end, a social kind of disease," Katz said.
While the study found an association between education and mortality in white
women, it didn't prove cause-and-effect.
For more information on US life expectancy, visit the US Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention.