Diverging trends in cause-specific mortality and life years lost by educational attainment: Evidence from United States vital statistics data, 1990-2010

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Abstract

Background Life expectancy at birth in the United States will likely surpass 80 years in the coming decade. Yet recent studies suggest that longevity gains are unevenly shared across age and socioeconomic groups. First, mortality in midlife has risen among non-Hispanic whites. Second, low-educated whites have suffered stalls (men) or declines (women) in adult life expectancy, which is significantly lower than among their college-educated counterparts. Estimating the number of life years lost or gained by age and cause of death, broken down by educational attainment, is crucial in identifying vulnerable populations. Methods and Findings Using U.S. vital statistics data from 1990 to 2010, this study decomposes the change in life expectancy at age 25 by age and cause of death across educational attainment groups, broken down by race and gender. The findings reveal that mortality in midlife increased for white women (and to a lesser extent men) with 12 or fewer years of schooling, accounting for most of the stalls or declines in adult life expectancy observed in those groups. Among blacks, mortality declined in nearly all age and educational attainment groups. Although an educational gradient was found across multiple causes of death, between 60 and 80 percent of the gap in adult life expectancy was explained by cardiovascular diseases, smoking- related diseases, and external causes of death. Furthermore, the number of life years lost to smoking-related, external, and other causes of death increased among low- and high school-educated whites, explaining recent stalls or declines in longevity. Conclusions Large segments of the American population - particularly low- and high school-educated whites under age 55 - are diverging from their college-educated counterparts and losing additional years of life to smoking-related diseases and external causes of death. If this trend continues, old-age mortality may also increase for these birth cohorts in the coming decades.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0163412
JournalPLoS ONE
Volume11
Issue number10
DOIs
StatePublished - Oct 2016

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