White women in the United States who are considered uneducated have a greater chance of dying compared to women who receive an adequate education. According to a study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholar Program at Harvard University, factors such as unemployment and drinking and smoking habits play a major role in this growing trend.

"Previous research has shown that over the past half century, the gap in adult mortality across education levels has grown in the United States for white and black men and women, and since the mid-1980s, the growth has been especially pronounced among white women," said Jennifer Karas Montez, lead author of the study.

"Those of us who have studied this disturbing trend have been really good at documenting it, but we have not been very good at explaining why it is happening. The reasons for the growing mortality gap are poorly understood."

Montez and fellow researcher Anna Zajacova from the Department of Sociology at the University of Wyoming utilized the National Health Interview Survey Linked Mortality File as the basis of their findings. Data was compiled between 1997 and 2006, taking into account 46,744 white women aged 45 to 84.

Female respondents were either marked as "low educated," those who didn't achieve a high school degree, or "high educated," those who did achieve a high school degree. The research team scanned for certain economic and behavioral considerations, including employment, occupation, poverty, home ownership, health insurance, smoking, obesity, and alcohol consumption.

The results of their analysis found that from 1997 to 2001, "low educated" white women had a 37 percent higher chance of dying, compared to those who were "high educated." The margin increased from 2002 to 2006 when a 66 percent difference was established.

"In our study, we focused on white women aged 45 to 84 years and examined three explanations - social-psychological factors, economic circumstances, and health behaviors - for the widening education gap in mortality from 1997 to 2006," Montez explained.

"We found that social-psychological factors contributed little to the increasing gap. However, economic circumstances and health behaviors played important roles."

Out of the eight possible contributing factors, employment and smoking reflected the highest potential risk.

"The role of employment is intriguing and, to our knowledge, has not been previously examined as a potential explanation of the growing education gap in mortality," Montez continued.

"Employment matters a lot is what the data is telling us, and that has implications for what can be done to stop the troubling trend. Employment provides both manifest and latent benefits, such as social networks and a sense of purpose. It also enhances self-esteem and offers mental and physical activity. Access to social networks and support through employment may have become more important in recent decades, with high divorce rates, smaller families, and geographic mobility disrupting other avenues of support."

Montez and Zajacova are confident that public understanding of this widening gap is essential to resolving this grim issue. They also recommend improving federal initiatives aimed toward educating women on the dangers of smoking.

"Based on the information we get from the news, it seems that life expectancy just keeps going up, and we're all riding this wave," Montez added. "But, the reality is, life expectancy is not increasing for everyone. In fact, for low-educated white women, it appears to be declining. And, this is disturbing."

The results of this study are published in the June edition of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

Source: Montez K, Zajacova A. Explaining the Widening Education Gap in Mortality among U.S. White Women. Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 2013.