The lifespans of less-educated white women are shrinking, while their more-educated counterparts are living longer. What's more, researchers now believe the reason for the discrepancy is linked to their employment status.
The difference in longevity between a woman who graduated high school and one who didn't is growing, the authors of the new study explained. American men, on the other hand, are living longer than before, regardless of their level of education.
Researchers looked at data on more than 46,000 white American women between the ages of 45 to 84 who took part in a national health survey from 1997 to 2006. The death rate for women who did not have a high school diploma was 37 percent higher than that of women with a high school degree between 1997 and 2001. But, from 2002 to 2006 that difference grew to 66 percent.
Researchers also looked at economic factors to see if there was anything that could have increased the lifespan gap. They discovered that employment status and whether or not the woman was a smoker were the two main driving factors.
"Our study found that the increasing importance of education for employment and smoking behavior were the most important explanations for the growing gap in mortality risk across education levels among white women," co-author Jennifer Karas Montez, a research fellow in the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, told HealthDay. "We found little support for explanations such as obesity, marriage and mental health."
Montez pointed out that employment can increase a person's social network, give them a sense of purpose, build self-esteem and provide mental and physical activities to complete.
"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.
She added that since the study ended in 2006, the recession did not play a role in the results.
Montez explained that improving education and employment levels for all women may help boost lifespan more than trying to curb their smoking habits. Women with lower education tend to have low-paying job with inflexible schedules, which makes childcare choices harder. Access to paid parental leave and subsidized child care could help women keep their jobs while raising children.
"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 behaviors rather than the behaviors themselves, and employment is an important lever to accomplish that."
Arun Karpur, physician and researcher at the Employment & Disability Institute at Cornell's ILR School in New York City, said in a press release that it was surprising to see that employment was still a big factor in mortality.
"These findings point to a crucial health policy-related challenge: providing access to high quality clinical and public health services for individuals who are out of labor market in the United States. Further, the current healthcare systems are geared to treat diseases rather than keeping people healthy. Community-based public health systems also need to be built up to ensure equitable access to live a healthy life," Karpur, who was not involved in the study, said.
The study appeared in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior on May 30.