The gap in life expectancy between blacks and whites in US is at a historic low according to a new report in The Journal of the American Medical Association. White men and women still outlive black men and women by about three to five years on average. But, from 2003 to 2008, the life expectancy gap declined by about a year, for both men and women.
The New York Times’ Well blog summarizes the report’s results:
…the difference in life expectancy between black and white men shrank from 6.5 to 5.4 years, with black men expected to live 70.8 years, compared with 76.2 years for non-Hispanic white men. For white and black women, the gap slimmed from a nearly five-year difference to a 3.7-year difference, with black women born in America now expected to live about 77.5 years, compared with 81.2 years for non-Hispanic white women.
The decline in the life expectancy gap actually began in 1993 and then increased from 2003 to 2008. The reported noted a decline in mortality rates among blacks due to health concerns such as heart disease, diabetes and H.I.V. infection, as well as from other factors including homicide and what the report terms “unintentional injury death” — e.g., car accidents.
But one reason for the decline in the life expectancy gap was a significant increase in the rate of drug-related deaths among whites. The report notes that death from “unintentional poisoning” — primarily drug-related deaths — has “now eclipsed motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of injury death and has affected middle-aged white men more than any other group.” From 2003 to 2008, mortality through “unintentional poisonings” rose by 15 to 20 percent for both black men and women. That sound likes a lot but rates for white men and women went up by 60 to 75 percent and were especially noted for those aged 20 to 54.
One of the report’s authors, Sam Harper, an assistant professor in the department of epidemiology, biostatistics and occupational health at McGill University in Montreal, suggested that the phenomenon of “painkiller abuse and overdose mortality” indeed seems to be affecting whites to a greater degree than blacks. That is, while it is certainly positive that the life expectancy gap between blacks and whites has decreased, “we don’t want to see the gap decline because of mortality increases among whites,” Harper underscores.
As Elizabeth Arias, a demographer with the National Center for Health Statistics in Hyattsville, Md., comments in the Los Angeles Times, the new statistics do reflect significant improvements since data was first collected in 1900. Then, the gap in life expectancy was 14 years, with a black man expecting to live 32.5 years and a black woman 33.5 years. In contrast, white men were found to live 46.3 years and white women, 48.3 years.
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