Differences in Life Expectancy Due to Race and Educational Differences Are Widening, and Many May Not Catch Up

Published In: Health Affairs, v. 31, no. 8, Aug. 2012, p. 1803-1813

Posted on RAND.org on August 01, 2012

by S. Jay Olshansky, Toni C. Antonucci, Lisa F. Berkman, Robert H. Binstock, Axel Boersch-Supan, John T. Cacioppo, Bruce A. Carnes, Laura L. Carstensen, Linda P. Fried, Dana P. Goldman, James Jackson, Martin Kohli, John Rother, Yuhui Zheng, John W. Rowe

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It has long been known that despite well-documented improvements in longevity for most Americans, alarming disparities persist among racial groups and between the well-educated and those with less education. In this article we update estimates of the impact of race and education on past and present life expectancy, examine trends in disparities from 1990 through 2008, and place observed disparities in the context of a rapidly aging society that is emerging at a time of optimism about the next revolution in longevity. We found that in 2008 US adult men and women with fewer than twelve years of education had life expectancies not much better than those of all adults in the 1950s and 1960s. When race and education are combined, the disparity is even more striking. In 2008 white US men and women with 16 years or more of schooling had life expectancies far greater than black Americans with fewer than 12 years of education—14.2 years more for white men than black men, and 10.3 years more for white women than black women. These gaps have widened over time and have led to at least two "Americas," if not multiple others, in terms of life expectancy, demarcated by level of education and racial-group membership. The message for policy makers is clear: 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.

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