CHICAGO, June 13 (Xinhua) -- A study posted on the website of the University of Michigan (UM) on Thursday shows that the growing gap between the lifespans of more- and less-educated Americans have many reasons behind it.
The researchers used Census and Vital Statistics data to evaluate historically relevant causes of deaths, including opioids, cardiovascular disease, HIV, and lung or other cancers, for non-Hispanic blacks and whites between 1990 and 2015, ranking them by gender and education, say less or more educated.
When looking at the deaths of despair, namely drug overdose, suicide and alcohol-related liver diseases, the researchers found that drug overdoses do contribute to the widening inequality for whites, especially men, but that's not the case for blacks. They also found that overdose deaths are less important for growing inequality in women's life expectancy.
For older adults, where the growth in inequality is largest, premature death due to cardiovascular disease and cancers are the main reason for the widening gap, instead of overdose deaths. The early onset and progression of such chronic diseases can reflect the physiological impact of prolonged and resolute coping with life stressors.
The researchers found that suicide rates have contributed little to the growing inequality gap, contrary to the "deaths of despair" theory. Instead, deaths due to cardiovascular disease, non-lung cancers and other internal diseases might help explain important shares of the growing life expectancy gap between those less educated and their highly educated counterparts.
"These findings suggest that, rather than giving up in the face of hopelessness, less-educated Americans may be losing ground for exactly the opposite reason: because they work so hard, they bear the health consequences of years of stress," said Arline Geronimus, a professor at UM's School of Public Health and lead author of the study.
As for the opioid epidemic, targeted marketing to white populations, overprescription of legal opioids by physicians, the increasing use of fentanyl in street drugs, and restricted access to life-saving resources have all contributed to the increase in inequality in life expectancy in whites, the researchers suggest.
"While addressing the opioid epidemic is urgent, we should not lose sight of the widening educational mortality gap attributed to cardiovascular disease, cancers and other internal causes," Geronimus said
The study has been published in the June issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.