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New study pokes holes in “deaths of despair” theory for rising life expectancy inequality

University of Michigan

New research out of the University of Michigan suggests the life expectancy inequality between more eduated and less educated Americans is not caused by difference in suicide or overdose deaths.

Instead, the inequality may be caused by another factor: stress.

A popular theory for the life expectancy gap between more and less educated Americans is what experts call “deaths of despair” - the idea that less-educated individuals either take their life or die of a drug overdose.

Researchers use education levels as a proxy for things like socioeconomic status because they appear on death certificates.

Between 1990 and 2015 the life expectancy gap between more and less educated white men increased from 3.31 years to 6.57 years.

For black women that number increased from 0.31 years to 2.54.

In short, the popular theory argued, rising economic inequality was driving many Americans to shorten their lives.

Arline Geronimous is a professor at the University of Michigan. She worked on the new study and said the data tell a different story. According to Geronimous, gaps in life expectancy are actually due to lower-educated individuals taking on more stress as they work harder to make ends meet.

“Those things create chronic disease in people and chronic disease deaths in people, and that takes you in a very different direction for how you solve it.”

Geronimous said opioids and suicide are an issue, but focusing solely on them won’t solve life expectancy inequality across the entire population.

“The opioid epidemic is a huge problem,” Geronimous said. “It is primarily a huge problem among white, young, men.”

Specifically, Geronimous’ research found that while suicide and drug overdose could explain the growing gaps between more and less educated white men those factors weren’t able to explain the same gaps among other groups, particularly black women.

Geronimous hopes her study will push people to look at the problem of rising life expectancy inequality in a new way. She said her study shows it is not that less educated people are giving up in the face of rising inequality, it is that they are working harder to make ends meet.

Addressing the root causes of life expectancy inequality, she said, will require tackling things like income inequality and access to healthcare.