By Paul Kleyman
Photo: Former nurse Ollie Burton, shown last year at age 103 at the Kissito Healthcare’s nursing home in Midland, Tex., represents the longevity exception. A new study shows that the gap in life expectancy between blacks and white has widened since 1990, especially for those with lower educational levels.
CHICAGO—The longevity gap between “two Americas” has widened since 1990, says a new study. One America is mostly white and well educated, and the other is ethnic or undereducated – and dying about a decade sooner than their more affluent counterparts.
The gap between college-educated whites and African Americans who did not complete high school is “simply unbelievable,” stated S. Jay Olshansky, lead author of the extensive new analysis published in the August issue of the prestigious health policy journal Health Affairs.
The researchers, who crunched mortality numbers in key databases from 1990-2008, found that white men in the United States with 16 years or more of schooling had life expectancy at birth of 14.2 years longer than African American males with fewer than 12 years of education. The gulf between well-educated white women and black women with low educational levels was 10.3 years.
The research study is published with the stark title, “Differences in Life Expectancy Due to Race and Educational Differences Are Widening, and Many May Not Catch Up.” It is the latest publication by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on an Aging Society, a roster of 15 leading academic experts in aging and longevity.
Low Education Shortens Life for All Groups
The report shows that lower educational levels marked declining life expectancy within every demographic group examined.
The gap between black women of high versus low educational levels was 6.5 years, and for Latinas the difference was 2.9 years. For males the longevity gaps were 12.9 years among whites, 9.7 years among blacks and 5.5 years for Hispanics.
What’s more, the picture for those with fewer than 12 years of education “has grown notably worse for whites,” says the study. In terms of educational status “whites at the bottom are losing ground at a faster pace” than those at the top.
The gulf between white women is especially wide, says the report. Those with 12 years or less of education were living just over a decade (10.4 years) less than white American females with at least 16 years of schooling.
The two Americas—those with very high versus very low education—are in a longevity “time warp,” Olshansky asserted.
While those with higher levels of formal learning are gaining longevity dividends every year, those least educated have had life expectancy linger at mid-20th century levels. Although blacks have added years slightly overall, among those with the lowest education, longevity for African American men is stuck at the average life expectancy the United States reached in 1954. For other groups with the least education, black women linger at the 1962 level, white women hover in 1964, and poorly schooled white men only live as long as Americans did in 1972.
Medical Advances Not Enough
According to the study, higher education directly affects health because increased learning prompts more people to adopt healthier lifestyles, it improves their ability to cope with stress, and enables them to manage chronic diseases more effectively.
However, the report says, education’s indirect effects, such as increasing one’s access to “more privileged social position, better-paying jobs and higher income are also profound.”
These underlying social and economic effects, the research group explains, is why efforts to modify behavioral risk factors alone, such as to reduce obesity or smoking, “are not likely to have a major impact on disparities in longevity.”
And the ethnic disparities in education are sharp. On the one hand, among those age 25 or older in 2008, the researchers found, more than one-third of Latinos had less than a high school education, compared with one in six African Americans and only one in 12 whites.
On the other hand, says the study, among those who “enjoy the health and longevity benefits” of a college or post-graduate degree, about one-third are white, one-sixth are black and one in eight are Hispanic.
The life-expectancy findings for Hispanics are more complicated than for others. Although Latinos appear to have the highest reported life expectancy at birth among ethnic groups in the study, the researchers cautioned that other factors are in play.
Previous research cited by the study’s authors shows that Latino immigrants “tend to be healthier than subsequent U.S.-born generations of Hispanics.” Second- or third-generation Hispanics born in the United States experience higher mortality risks and die 10-20 percent earlier than their immigrant parents’ and grandparents’ generations.
As Hispanics become a larger proportion of the total U.S. population—with a higher proportion of them born here, “their current longevity advantage may diminish rapidly,” the article says.
Also skewing the overall figures showing a Latino longevity advantage, says the study, many older Hispanic immigrants “return to their country of origin to die; and the people who emigrate from most countries in Latin America tend to be healthier and more highly educated than the population from which they originated.”
Gap Could Grow Larger
Without greater attention to education and its impact on social factors in health, say Olshansky and his colleagues, advances in medicine and technology alone are unlikely to close disparities by race and socioeconomic status. Nationally, he noted, increased access to good educational equity is apt to improve people’s health and productivity, thus reducing future demands on Medicare and dependence on Social Security—major budget issues in the presidential campaign.
They emphasize that expanding lifelong learning opportunities would be especially significant for those already in the workforce and who would find it very difficult to return to traditional formal education programs.
Olshansky and his colleagues warn that if the anticipated advances in medical science and technology continue without educational gains, by 2050 “the health and longevity gap between the two Americas could grow larger.”
They recommend that American society “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.”