Impact of education on longevity during past two decades

1/29/2016 feature story

John Bound, Arline Geronimus, Javier Rodriguez, and Tim Waidmann re-examine recent findings on worsening mortality rates among low-SES whites, especially women.

More Information.

John Bound
Arline T. Geronimus
Javier Rodriguez

Publication Information:

Bound, John, Arline T. Geronimus, Javier Rodriguez, and Timothy A. Waidmann. 2015. "Measuring Recent Apparent Declines In Longevity: The Role Of Increasing Educational Attainment." Health Affairs, 34(12): 2167-2173. PMCID: PMC4783133.

Independent researchers have reported an alarming decline in life expectancy after 1990 among US non-Hispanic whites with less than a high school education. However, US educational attainment rose dramatically during the twentieth century; thus, focusing on changes in mortality rates of those not completing high school means looking at a different, shrinking, and increasingly vulnerable segment of the population in each year. We analyzed US data to examine the robustness of earlier findings categorizing education in terms of relative rank in the overall distribution of each birth cohort, instead of by credentials such as high school graduation. Estimating trends in mortality for the bottom quartile, we found little evidence that survival probabilities declined dramatically. We conclude that widely publicized estimates of worsening mortality rates among non-Hispanic whites with low socioeconomic position are highly sensitive to how educational attainment is classified. However, non-Hispanic whites with low socioeconomic position, especially women, are not sharing in improving life expectancy, and disparities between US blacks and whites are entrenched. Findings underscore the urgency of an agenda to equitably disseminate new medical technologies and to deepen knowledge of social determinants of health and how that knowledge can be applied, to promote the objective of achieving population health equity.

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