The racial gap in life expectancy

We have new data on mortality and racial disparity from a report by the National Center for Health Statistics.

Unfortunately, the results seem to be related to black or white racial identity only.

Life expectancy differs by 4 years, on average, between these two ethnic groups. This gap has narrowed over time, but still persists. What accounts for this difference in mortality rates?

The report shows how “Black disadvantage” is largely linked to heart disease – the single biggest drag on black life expectancy. The second-biggest factor was cancer.

Better news: The infant mortality rate for blacks fell by 16 percent from 2005 to 2011, compared with a 12 percent drop for whites.

Lesser-known: Whites have suffered a setback in a category known as unintentional injuries, which includes the surge in prescription drug overdoses that has disproportionately affected whites since the 1990s.

Blacks also had lower death rates than whites from suicide, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, and respiratory diseases like emphysema, as well as chronic liver disease.

Important note: this research focuses on official cause of death, rather than taking into account the social factors that may undergird such material realities. For an example of this, see this recent NPR report on location and life expectancy.

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Meika Loe

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