Life Expectancy and School Experience: Some Findings in North Carolina

By Betty H. Landsberger

Vol. 1, No. 1, 1978, pp. 18-19

Editor's Note: In the mid 1970's, a difference of at least 15 years in life expectancy was found to exist between White females and Black males in the population of the United States. This finding led Dr. Betty H. Landsberger, a member of the School of Nursing a the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to do some research into the possible contributing causes for this significant difference in life expectancy rates. What she found is that school experience may be one of the contributing causes. A condensation of her research follows.

Increasing attention is being paid to the fact that males ao not perform as well as females in school and to the emotional consequences which this situation causes for them, consequences which have in fact been equated with the concept stress. Also, for several years, concern has been expressed regarding the consequences of Black and minority groups performing poorly in school.

These variations in school performance among the four race/sex groups--White female, White male, non-White female, non-White male--are possibly related to their health conditions, and thus to their different life expectancy rates. The concept of stress provides the linkage between school experiences and life expectancy.

Writing about different health conditions, Dr. Robert Wilson gives a perceptive description of the extent of the problem for individuals living in disadvantageous circumstances in our society:

...various states of ill health in the most disadvantaged sectors of the population rest not only on the obvious defects of nutrition, housing, preventive medical care, and so on, but also on a syndrome of social psychological insufficiency ...A damaged sense of identity and a damaged sense of competence may themselves be viewed as intrinsic "dis-eases" of the total psychosocial equilibrium of the individual. In turn, these deficits may provide a necessary, if not sufficient, casual strand in the production of a range of illnesses.

A number of scholarly investigators have hypothesized linkages between life experiences and several of the leading causes of death: various heart diseases, lung cancer, and alcoholism, as well as accidents and homicide.

Figures regarding vital statistics for North Carolina for 1975 demonstrate two facts about these illnesses: 1) they were indeed prominent as causes of death for all ages for the total population; 2) when figures for the race/sex group are given separately, rates for these causes (as well as total death rates) were found to be particularly high for Black males, usually followed by White males--at one age group, and for some causes, by non-White females--while rates for White females were almost always far lower than the other groups.

Life Expectancy

The story of life expectancy differences among the four race/sex groups of North Carolina during the past half-century follows the same pattern. Females of both races have made dramatic increases in years of life expected at the point of birth. Meanwhile, the story of males of both races is a different one. While life expectancy for all males increased by about ten years between 1925 and 1950, the gain did not continue after 1950 for males of either race. Though all four groups had a longer life expectancy in 1970 than in 1925, their averages were much farther apart by 1970.

In 1970, the difference in life expectancy between White females and Black males was 17 years. The White females' life expectancy of 76 years was eight years more than the figure for Black females, and nine years more than the 67 years for White men.


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While these statistics are the result of several probable causes,anunlikely place where the issue of life and death may be heavily influenced is the school. A review of a recent study in North Carolina shows the connection.

School Experience in North Carolina

A group of children who began kindergarten in 1970 and finished third grade in 1974 were tested and their development assessed in a variety of ways at the beginning of kindergarten and the end of the first year and again at the end of third grade. The 800 children involved at the beginning were the kindergarteners in a network of 18 early childhood demonstration centers across the state. In the schools making up the network, there was a representative balance of rural and urban, poor and not-so-poor, and Black and White populations.

The findings were examined to compare the four race/sex grol/ps to decide the extent to which their school experience, as reflected in primary school performance, correlated to life expectancy.

From the testing it is clear that in school the White female group did fare best of the four race/sex groups. The performance of this group was high, from beginning kindergarten to end of third grade. Interestingly, White males began kindergarten performing higher than White females; however, their performance declined from that point and fell far below the females by the end of third grade. The figure for poor White boys was below poor White females as well at the end of third grade.

Differences between White boys and girls at the end of third grade were tested to see whether they were statistically significant. This was done with two achievement tests, and with social-emotional tests. Girls excelled over boys on all tests.

On a comparison by race, the study showed the performance of non-Whites of both sexes to be substantially lower than the Whites of both sexes.

Thus, White females, whose life expectancy rates are highest by far, did very well in school, with achievement levels in all subjects, social-emotional measures and cognitive ability at the top of the four groups. White males, on the other hand, experienced a decline from kindergarten entrance, where their performance was slightly higher than White females.

Most striking, the performance of Black children of both sexes was considerably lower than Whites at kindergarten entrance, in fact the percentiles of measurement were almost 2 to 1 for Whites over Blacks.

Undoubtedly, much frustration and little gratification is experienced by individuals performing at or near the bottom in their experiences day after day in class rooms. The difference in life expectancy between the sexes for Blacks is far greater than is indicated by the school experience differences. Poverty is another risk factor. There is proportionately so much more poverty in minority racial groups that the already noted differences in death rates by racial groups inevitably reflect the influence of poverty.

Mortality and Illnesses

It is admittedly a long way from the third graders at nine years old to the ages at which death rates for lung cancer are high. Yet, surprisingly similar correlations for these same groups appear in data on the health status of children in the same ages.

While the possibility of damage from poor school experience may be felt over the long haul of 50-60 years, it also appears that the mortality rates for youth are consistent with the differences among the sex /race groups which the in-school study shows, and the more years in school, the greater these differences become. The death rates for the age groups 5-9 years, 1014 years and 1519 years for races and sex/race groups separately are as follows:

White

Age Group (in years) Both Sexes Male Female
5-9 33.6 34.1 27.5
10-14 34.1 43.3 24.4
15-19 99.1 144.5 52.4

Non-White

Age Group (in years) Both Sexes Male Female
5-9 46.3 55.9 36.6
10-14 44.6 57.4 31.6
15-19 114.8 164.3 65.4

Morbidity, or what is better understood as frequency of illness, is another measurement of health status. The literature regarding child health in the past few years from Great Britain as well as the United States has contained many reports giving substantial attention to a 'new morbidity." Put very simply, in the


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wake of the great successes in virtually eliminating illnesses which were so common until a few years ago--measles is an example of a recent 'conquest--other forms of disorder and poor health have come to take their plares. Prominent among these are failure to thrive" among ntants, and "learning disabilities," "emotionally tur1ed behavior," and "hyperactivity" among presch:J; and school-aged children.

Some studies indicate that the new morbidity" is of special concern among the poor, minority-group cnikiren, those in innercity neighborhoods, and among males more than females. One researcher also found both poor achievement and emotional disturbance to occur frequently in his sample, where children were mostly inner-city, minority-group members He found a higher incidence of both problems among m-les. Hence, the higher incidence of the "new morbidity" seems to match roughly the groups for whom school experience will probably cause the most stress.

By the studies already done, there appears to be little doubt that school experience takes a toll on the health status of the same groups and in particular that the 15 years less in life expectancy of poor Black males in our nation is an outcome predictable from that picture. This is especially the case when the differences of careers and economic well-being (that often follows poor achievement in school) are taken into account.

Certainly, more research needs to be done, especially in carefully examining through educational and psychological testing school achievements and experiences of children in terms of race/sex groupings. Also, health professionals must give increased attention in their research and practice to the effects of the school experience and to begin to identify ways to address the problems of present and future health as related to the school experience.

Most important, everyone, including school administrators and policymakers, must begin to recognize that much more than functional literacy and academic achievement is at stake when our children enter the portals of our schools for the first time.

To do poorly in school is bad enough in its immediate and short-run consequences. It is even more serious if it does indeed contribute to stress-related illness and to "earlier than necessary" death for some of the groups in the population. There seems to be a clear need for "affirmative action" programs to benefit those grc.ups at highest risk in their school experience, beginning at the kindergarten level or earlier. Surely public education should play the role of minimizing rather than maximizing the health risks of well over half the population it is designed to serve.