In 1990, the life expectancy for a white American woman without a high school diploma was 78.5 years. By 2008, that number dropped to 73.5, according to a study published in Health Affairs.
Much research has noted the rise in life expectancy for the most educated Americans, but this new study pinpoints a disturbing trend within specific subgroups.
"We're used to looking at groups and complaining that their mortality rates haven't improved fast enough, but to actually go backward is deeply troubling," John G. Haaga, head of the Population and Social Processes Branch of the National Institute on Aging, told the New York Times for its in-depth story on the subject.
Although lesser educated white women represented the biggest drop, white men also lost three years. For black and Hispanics without high school diplomas, life expectancy rose.
The silver lining? The number of people without high school diplomas is dropping, so the group represented is much smaller that in the past.
"The good news is that there are fewer people in this group," lead investigator S. Jay Olshansky told the New York Times. "The bad news is that those who are in it are dying more quickly."
While there are theories that may help explain the drop, there are no clear answers, the Times piece points out. Some note the rise in overdoses of prescription drugs, the increase in smoking for women without high school diplomas, and lesser access to health care.
"Researchers in the field of aging believe that we are on the brink of the next longevity revolution, but when it happens, not everyone is going to benefit equally, and some may not benefit at all," the researchers wrote. "There now appear to be Two Americas in terms of longevity and survival prospects, and this divide will grow larger as new life-extending technologies come online."
The solution, according to the researchers? Life-long learning and education.