Life expectancy has been steadily rising for Americans, but only better-educated people are enjoying longer lifespans while those with high school diplomas or less are falling further behind, a Harvard study says.
A 25-year-old in 1990 who had 12 years of education or less could look ahead to living until not quite 75, according to the study in the current issue of Health Affairs. At the same point, a 25-year-old with at least some college education could look forward to reaching 80.
In 2000, a 25-year-old who did not go beyond high school would still be expected to live to almost 75, but the better-educated 25-year-oldís life expectancy went up to 81.6 years, based on an analysis of death certificates, Census population estimates, and national mortality data, the most recent information available.
"We all know life expectancy is lengthening, which is very encouraging news, but that improvement is happening just for the better-educated group," Ellen Meara of Harvard Medical School said in an interview. "Not only is the gain not happening as quickly for those with less education, but on average it is flat."
The education gap persisted among both non-Hispanic black and white Americans, the study said. Hispanic blacks and whites were not included to limit the impact of immigration on the results, the authors wrote.
Deaths from diseases strongly linked to smoking -- lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder -- accounted for one-fifth of the life-expectancy gap between the groups with different levels of education. That fits with other research that shows people with less education are less likely to quit smoking.
Meara, an assistant professor of health economics, said the paper will challenge health experts to extend the success that anti-smoking strategies have had among the better educated to people who have less education. Smoking is just one example, she said, with obesity among other risk factors that can be attacked.
"Itís not that surprising to see people making different gains in different places at different rates," she said. But "we find it unsettling when one group enjoys such a great health advantage in terms of the lifespan they can expect."
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