Black People Are Now Living Almost As Long As White People, But There’s a Catch

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One of the clearest markers of racial disparities in the United States is, and has long been, lifespan: Black people don’t live as long as white people. But as Victor R. Fuchs of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research notes in a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, that gap has now almost closed entirely:

Between 1995 and 2014, the increase in black life expectancy at birth was more than double the white increase: a gain of 6.0 years from 69.6 years to 75.6 years for black people compared with a gain of 2.5 years from 76.5 years to 79.0 for white people. The difference in the percent per annum rate of increase was also more than double: 0.44 for black people, 0.17 for white people.

Fuchs goes on to note that other researchers have shown that just five areas of reduction in mortality among African-Americans “accounted for almost 60% of the decrease” in the gap: cardiovascular disease, cancer, HIV, unintentional injuries, and perinatal conditions. The two areas with the most potential for closing the gap further, notes Fuchs, are deaths from diabetes mellitus and homicide, both of which affect African-Americans far more than whites.

One interesting question Fuchs doesn’t address is what the gap would look like if white Americans, particularly middle-aged ones, hadn’t had such a terrible recent run, healthwise. As Science of Us noted earlier this year, there has been a shocking reversal when it comes to the health of middle-aged white people in the U.S. While in just about everywhere else in the developed world, the death rate steadily declined between 1989 and 2013, among middle-aged whites, it remained level (or level-ish).

So, yes, it is good news that we are approaching parity in black-white life expectancy. But part of the reason we are is because of a public-health crisis that has hit white people disproportionately since the late 1980s. Presumably, if that crisis hadn’t hit, the gap would be bigger, but far fewer people would have died preventable deaths. Either way, despite the many disparities that persist, we appear to be chugging along toward an important life-expectancy milestone.