In a stunning development, life expectancy for some Americans is actually declining.

The life expectancy of white high school dropouts in the U.S. has dropped since 1990, according to a new study published by Health Affairs, which analyzed government data. The researchers found that the life expectancy of white female high school dropouts plunged to about 73 years in 2008 from 78 in 1990. The life expectancy of white male high school dropouts has fallen by 3 years to 67 years in the same time period, according to the New York Times.

“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, who was not involved in the new study, told The New York Times.

The education gap in life expectancy has widened too, according to the research. The lifespans of white females with a college degree grew by more than 3 years from 1990 to 2008. They can expect to live a decade longer than female high-school dropouts.

Researchers are unsure why life expectancy plunged for dropouts. Some believe that lack of health insurance, rising obesity, smoking and prescription drug overdoses among young whites may be partly to blame, according to the New York Times.

Life expectancy for Hispanics and blacks increased over the same time period. Blacks on average do not live as long as whites, while Hispanics live longer than both whites and blacks.

The poor job prospects for Americans without a college education may be partially to blame. Workers without a bachelor's degree earn $2.8 million less over their lifetimes than college graduates, according to a study by Georgetown University. Most recent high school graduates not in college are unemployed, and those with jobs are getting paid barely enough to stay out of poverty, according to a study by Rutgers University.

The U.S. has a lower life expectancy than a number of countries. Life expectancy in the U.S. was roughly 78 years, according to the World Bank. Meanwhile, life expectancy in Japan, Australia, Italy, the United Kingdom, France, Norway, and other developed countries is more than 80 years.

(Hat tip: the New York Times.)

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