Life Spans Not Falling for Less Educated

Mobile Share Email Facebook Twitter LinkedIn

A September 2012 article on page one of The New York Times reported “disturbingly sharp drops” in life expectancy between 1990 and 2008 for Americans who do not complete high school – five years less for white women and three years less for white men.

This flatly contradicted past studies documenting rising longevity throughout the developed world. Much was also at stake in this dramatic new finding for U.S. retirement experts concerned about the growing financial pressures on retirees from what they’d assumed were virtually uninterrupted gains in longevity

Everyone wants to live longer, but it’s expensive. So who’s right?

In reaction to the 2012 study, a new group of researchers, funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration, took another run at calculating life spans and found that life expectancy is not on the decline for Americans with the least education.

The researchers, from the University of Michigan and Urban Institute, used the same data as in the 2012 study – U.S. Census data and National Vital Statistics.  But they refined the statistical technique. One criticism of the prior paper had been its blunt measure of Americans with the least education, defined simply as those who had not graduated high school.

Yet the segment of the U.S. population that doesn’t graduate high school has shrunk dramatically, becoming an increasingly selective – and disadvantaged – group.  That’s a change from the experience of people born a century ago for whom leaving high school to begin working or marry was the norm.

To correct for the shift in educational attainment, the researchers defined Americans with the least education in any particular birth cohort as those falling in the bottom one-quarter in terms of how many years of education they had completed. To determine whether longevity for this group has changed over time, they analyzed the mortality trends between 1990 and 2010, by race and sex, for people born between 1925 and 1985.

They found only negligible changes for white women in this low education group, while longevity actually increased for white men. Life expectancy also rose for black and Hispanic men and women who drop out of high school.

The new study did confirm another finding from the 2012 study – that longevity is rising faster for more educated Americans.  But, the authors do “not see any evidence” that people with less education are not living as long as they had in the past.

Full disclosure:  The research cited in this post was funded by a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) through the Retirement Research Consortium, which also funds this blog.  The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the blog’s author and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA or any agency of the federal government.

Val Reader

Does it really matter when the USA is shamefully 42nd in life expectancy world wide?

As of 2014, the country with the highest life expectancy is Monaco at 89.57 years; the country with the lowest life expectancy is Chad at just 49.44 years.

Life Expectancy for Countries, 2014
Rank Country Life expectancy
1 Monaco 89.57
2 Macau 84.48
3 Japan 84.46
4 Singapore 84.38
5 San Marino 83.18
6 Hong Kong 82.78
7 Andorra 82.65
8 Switzerland 82.39
9 Guernsey 82.39
10 Australia 82.07
…42 United States 79.56
…223 Chad 49.44

Read more: Life Expectancy for Countries |

    Bettie McLeod

    Thank you for your informative response. The SSA article shown in the context of worldwide life expectancy makes the arguments set forth with regard to education and life expectancy in the U.S.A. only useful to businesses who want to know to whom they should be slanting their ads.

Adrian L. Sabater

I was a very active high school athlete and even wrestled for a year at my university (Oklahoma). I did my mini-survey of my classmates by reading through our 50 year re-union year book and drew the following conclusions:
1. All the over weight guys were dead
2. All the girls who smoked were dead
3. There were many, many more of the college graduates alive than those who did not go to college.
I left USA 14 years ago when my customers and ultimately my company in CA was run or of business by the combination of American government regulations and \duty free\ Chinese products. I have since lived and worked in Italy, China, Taiwan and now reside in Thailand. I am 7 kilograms over my high school wrestling weight of 1961.I have absolutely no health problems, nor medical expenses.
I have jogged all over the world and still work-out with weights and play tennis.
Also, the guys I used to know socially from my twenties (in Wilmington,DE)the same applied: all the over weight guys were dead. Only an old buddy from the gym was alive.

Adrian L. Sabater

PS: I have read another study about American aging and America’s medical expense per capita as compared to life span. Countries like India and Russia were down in both life expectancy and medical costs. USA life expectancy was lower than most European countries…..but American medical cost was “off the charts” and 3X that of European countries!

Elin Olsson

If you look at life spans for countries like Japan, Australia, they are ahead and countries like Afaghanistan, Somalia are below. If we look carefully at the graph we come to conclusion that the countries like Japan and Australia have good governmental policies that help people live a healthy life. And the countries in lower end of the graph, don’t have any specific or effective policies.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *. The Center for Retirement Research does not post all comments and may edit some for clarity or brevity. For more details on our reader comments policy, see here.