Life Expectancy Gap Persists as Blacks Die Before Whites

Higher death rates among blacks in the U.S. due to heart disease, cancer, homicide, diabetes and childbirth conditions drive a persistent gap in life expectancy for the group compared with whites, a government study found.

While Americans overall are living longer than in the 1970s, the five conditions accounted for a 3.8 year difference in life expectancy in 2010 between blacks and whites, according to a report today by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Whites born in 2010 are expected to live to 78.9 years, while blacks will make it to 75.1 years, the study found.

The report studied the relationship between cause of death and racial differences in life expectancy. Though the gap has narrowed from 7.6 years in 1970, the findings show where improvement is needed to help eliminate racial disparities.

“If the decline rate continues, the disparity will keep getting smaller, which would be great,” said Kenneth D. Kochanek, the study’s lead researcher from the Atlanta-based CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. “But we have no way of knowing yet.”

Black men experience the most risk from heart disease and cancer, living only 71 years on average while white women live 10 years longer with the highest life expectancy. Black men were also subject to greater risk from homicide whereas black women were affected more by diabetes.

The gap with whites was contained somewhat by fewer blacks dying from suicide, unintentional injuries, Parkinson’s, and chronic liver and lower respiratory diseases.

Narrowing Gap

After a slight increase in the 1980s, the CDC has seen the difference between black and white life expectancy decline in the past 10 years, Kochanek said. Since 1970, researchers have seen a 17 percent increase in life expectancy for blacks and the years between the life expectancy rates drop. Kochanek said that the preliminary data from 2011 confirms a continued decline in the racial gap.

“We highlighted causes so that people could understand the magnitude of something like heart disease, which accounts for a whole year of difference in life expectancy,” he said.

About 600,000 people in the U.S. die from heart disease every year, making it the number one killer, according to the CDC. Heart disease alone costs the nation $108.9 billion each year, according to the American Heart Association.

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