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Joblessness Shortens Life Expectancy For White Women

Unemployment can be a health hazard.
Unemployment can be a health hazard.

At a time when many people live longer, it's been a mystery why white women without a high school diploma have been dying increasingly earlier those with more education.

A study in the June issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior tries to understand this growing mortality gap, and finds two key factors: smoking — already well known as detrimental to life expectancy — and, more surprising, unemployment.

The study used data the National Center for Health Statistics had collected on more than 46,000 women from 1997 to 2006. The odds of the least educated women dying were 37 percent to 66 percent greater than those of their better educated peers, with the odds getting worse over time.

Researchers checked things like poverty, marital status, obesity, and home ownership. But by far, it was smoking and joblessness that had the strongest links to mortality, according to the lead author, Jennifer Karas Montez, a social demographer at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Montez suggests it's the social networks and sense of purpose that come with a job that help extend life expectancy.

"Access to social networks and support through employment may have become more important in recent decades," she said at a statement, "with high divorce rates, smaller families, and geographic mobility disrupting other avenues of support."

Montez said policymakers who've relied on health initiatives to address the mortality gap may now look to the workplace. She suggests family-friendly policies, like paid parental leave and subsidized child care, that could help keep women employed.

"The obstacles are particularly high for low-educated women," she says, "who tend to have low-paying jobs with inflexible schedules."

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Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.