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Editorial: More than a paycheck, works keeps us alive

Wendy Durkbattalichief Buffalo Grove Fire Department since 2011 works her office. She was recently recognized for her 35 years fire

Wendy Durkin, battalion chief of the Buffalo Grove Fire Department since 2011, works in her office. She was recently recognized for her 35 years in the fire service by the Illinois Comptroller's Office for Women's History Month. | Ryan Pagelow~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: July 4, 2013 6:08AM

Good news for beleaguered American women who have saved nothing toward retirement (also known as women who likely will work until they die):

Keeping a job may help keep you alive.

For the past 50 years, researchers have seen a growing gap in life expectancy among Americans at different education levels, and over the last 30 years the gap has grown at an especially fast clip for white women, separating white women with a high school or college degree from those without a high school diploma.

But researchers have never really understood what was driving the widening gap.

Until now.

A new study released last week begins to unravel the mystery, suggesting two key ways white woman with little education can prolong their lives: Find a job and kick the habit.

Here’s what the researchers found: The two factors most strongly associated with the higher death rates for high school dropouts are joblessness and smoking. Other factors, including marital status, alcohol use, homeownership and poverty, contributed little to the widening gap.

And here’s the most interesting part: It isn’t simply the income or the health insurance associated with a job that helps keep women alive — it’s simply holding a job.

This is crucial information as the U.S. faces a widening mortality gap. From 1997 to 2001, the odds of dying were 37 percent greater for low-educated women than for higher-educated ones. From 2002 to 2006, those odds jumped to 66 percent, according to a study in The Journal of Health and Social Behavior. Researchers from Harvard and the University of Wyoming looked at data from about 47,000 women, ages 45 to 84.

Something about having a job — a place to go, a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging — appears to help keep us alive.

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