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McGill study: Black-white US life expectancy gap persists but has narrowed

Published: 16 Mar 2007

Data credits fewer deaths from homicide, HIV/AIDS, accidents, and heart disease

Data credits fewer deaths from homicide, HIV/AIDS, accidents, and heart disease

Researchers at McGill University have found that the gap in life expectancy between whites and blacks in America still exists but has narrowed substantially. The McGill study Trends in the Black-White Life Expectancy Gap in the United States, 1983-2003 found that the gap declined to an historic low of 5.3 years in 2003 from 7.1 years in 1993, bringing the life expectancy of US blacks to 72.7 years, compared with 78 years for whites.

“What we’re seeing is partly a swing of the pendulum back to the trend of the 70s and early 80s, before the confluence of crack-related homicides and HIV/AIDS deaths among younger blacks caused the gap to widen,” said lead author Sam Harper, a postdoctoral fellow in McGill’s Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health.

Harper’s research, conducted with Professor John Lynch PhD, Canada Research Chair in Population Health, is published in the March 21 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The McGill researchers studied data complied by the US National Vital Statistics System, which is maintained by the National Center for Health Statistics.

They calculated trends in black and white mortality rates among specific age groups, as well as causes of death. The data show that changes among relatively few age groups and causes of death helped reduced the gap. Specifically, a decrease in mortality among black males 15-49 from homicide, HIV/AIDS and unintentional injuries (accidental death), as well as a decrease in mortality among black females due to heart disease, were major reasons for the recent decline in the gap.

Between 1993 and 2003, the female gap decreased by 1 year, from 5.59 years to 4.54, half of which was attributed to improvements in mortality among blacks in heart disease, homicide and unintentional injuries. The decline in the life expectancy gap was larger among black males, declining by 25% from the previous decade from 8.44 to 6.33 years. Nearly all of that 2.1-year decline was due to improvements in mortality rates among black men between 15-49 years due to fewer deaths from homicide, HIV/AIDS and unintentional injuries. A lack of improvement in death rates of older black men from heart disease kept the gap from narrowing even further.

Overall, the study concluded that, despite improvements, the fact that a substantial life expectancy gap still exists between the two groups will require concerted intervention from public health officials and health care providers. “The crucial thing here,” said Harper, “is that the black-white gap is not fixed and it’s not a mystery. It can change because of improvements in a small number of causes of death. This means the remaining gap can be addressed through greater public health efforts and improvements in health care.”

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