Black-White Life Expectancy Gap Narrows, Targets to Close Further Are Identified

Black-White Life Expectancy Gap

A recent Viewpoint article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) has highlighted that the life expectancy gap between blacks and whites has shrunk significantly since 1995. These dramatic gains are explained as the result of only a handful of health improvements and several additional targets to further close the gap are highlighted.

The life expectancy of black males rose faster than black females, but both groups saw distinct changes. From 1995 to 2014, a black male’s life expectancy at birth rose from 65.7 years to 72.5. For black women, the change was from 73.9 to 78.4. The white population also saw a life expectancy increase during this period, but the improvements were not as strong. White men saw their life expectancy go from 73.3 to 76.7, and women had an increase from 79.6 to 81.4 years. While it is true that black Americans are still behind, the difference has shrunk considerably—almost cut in half in some cases.

A 2015 study, which the article references, had looked at this change and found that close to 60% of this improvement was tied to changes in five causes of death: cardiovascular disease, HIV, unintentional injury, and perinatal conditions. Perinatal refers to the period between roughly the 20th week of pregnancy and the first month after birth.

Further exploration is done of the targets that are likely to produce significant contributions to further decreasing the gap. The criteria were simple: the cause had to cause a “substantial” number of deaths and have a significantly higher age-adjusted mortality ratio for blacks than for whites. Eleven candidates were outlined: HIV, homicide, essential hypertension and hypertensive kidney disease, prostate cancer, diabetes, septicemia, breast cancer, cerebrovascular disease, heart disease, and colon, rectal, and anal cancer.

Many of these potential targets already have significant prevention and treatment efforts focused on them, which is good news for anyone but particularly for blacks. By pushing awareness, prevention, and research into treatment, the life expectancy gap will hopefully see even further shortening in the future.

Fuchs, V., “Black Gains in life Expectancy,” JAMA, 2016; 10.1001/jama.2016.14398.