Differences shrink between black, white Americans in life expectancy

The gap between black and white Americans in life expectancy is shrinking, for good reasons and bad ones.

Good: Heart and blood vessel disease is not killing African Americans quite as lethally as before, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. There is also good news of  improvements in black Americans’ deaths due to cancer, HIV, unintentional injuries, and health problems during infancy.

Bad: Part of the declining gap is due to whites losing ground in their own battle for longer lives. Last week, we reported on findings by a Nobel economics laureate and his colleague of  a jarring jump in the death rate for middle-aged whites, most notably men and women ages 45-54 with high school educations or less.

The CDC said that overall American life expectancy trends have improved gradually since 1900 but racial disparities also have existed since U.S. officials started collecting the data. The agency also noted: “In 1999, the difference in life expectancy between the white and black populations was 5.9 years. The gap decreased to 3.6 years in 2013,” with blacks’ longevity rates increasing faster than those for whites. Blacks in the U.S., the agency said, now live 75.5 years on average, while whites live 79.1 years; black men’s life expectancy in 2013 was 72.3 years, while it was 78.4 years for black women. The comparable figures for whites were 76.7 years for men and 81.4 year for women.

Improvements in life expectancy, the CDC said, were lessened for black Americans due to their challenges with aortic aneurysm, Alzheimer’s disease, and maternal conditions. That’s a contrast with lesser educated, middle-aged whites whose life expectancy decreased, primarily due to suicide and its slower version — death from alcohol and drug abuse.

The increased life expectancy for black Americans may be rewarding for those striving to address African Americans’ distinctive health needs. Groups like the American Heart Association have campaigned in African American communities to increase awareness about blacks’ heightened risks for cardiovascular disease due to uncontrolled high blood pressure, obesity, and the complications of diabetes. Researchers have tried novel approaches to reach out the African Americans in familiar settings, such as neighborhood barbershops, to provide health education, especially about hypertension and its harms to blacks. Health workers, in similar fashion, have crusaded to reduce the crushing rates of HIV infections in communities of color.

Still, the news about black mothers’ death and illness rates with pregnancy, and how it affects their life expectancy, remains nothing less than stunning and unacceptable, with the U.S. recording an intolerable maternal death rate among developed nations.

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