Life expectancies of U.S. whites with low education drop sharply

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(CBS News) Overall life expectancy has dropped for white Americans who have less than a high school diploma to rates similar to those of the 1950s and 1960s, new research finds.

The study found non-Hispanic white men without a diploma lived on average until 67.5 in 2008, three years less than they did in 1990. The drop in lifespan was even bigger for non-Hispanic white women with low education: They live five years shorter than 1990 rates, from 78 years old to just 73.5.

In comparison, white men and women with a college degree or more lived on average until 80.4 and 83.9 respectively.

"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," John G. Haaga, the head of the Population and Social Processes Branch of the National Institute on Aging who was not involved with the study, told the New York Times.

The "troubling" statistics were published in the August 2012 issue of Health Affairs.

Life expectancies for the least educated black men (less than high school diploma) were at the same level as 1954. Black women's lifespans were at the same numbers as 1962. White women and white men were reporting average life expectancies seen in 1964 and 1972 respectively.

"It's as if Americans with the least education are living in a time warp," study author S. Jay Olshansky, professor of epidemiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health, said in a press release.

This isn't the first time that a decline has been reported. National Center for Health Statistics reported that life expectancy went down for most American men from 75.4 in 2007 to 75.3 in 2008, Discovery News reported. Women's data also reflected that one-tenth drop.

Blacks and Hispanics at the same education levels still don't live as long as whites, the New York Times pointed out. And, the small increases and large decreases are especially concerning because the highly-educated segment of the population has had increases in life expectancy.

Researchers attribute the smaller increases and decreases in lifespan to higher amounts of obesity in black women, and white women picking up negative behaviors such as smoking, alcoholic consumption and drug use. Prescription drug overdoses and obesity are also increasing for less educated white women as well as a noticeable increase in the amount of low education level white Americans who don't have health insurance, the New York Times reported.

The researchers add that the study emphasizes the effect of education and socioeconomic status on life expectancies.

"We must find a way to bring these subgroups of the population back into the present," Olshansky said.

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