There's a shameful racial gap in American life expectancy -- but it's shrinking

The latest analysis by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) investigates why the racial gap in black and white life expectancy is shrinking — even though the primary problem is that it still exists at all.

For people in the US, the average life expectancy in 2013 was 79.1 years, an increase from 77.3 in 1999.

But those averages hide some yawning disparities. Take a look at this chart:

In 2013, the average life expectancy of black men and women in the United States was just 75.5 years. That’s still below what the average life expectancy was for white men and women way back in 1999 — 14 years earlier. The average life expectancy of black men in 2013 was just 72.3 (compared to 76.7 for white men).

While such a significant gap is troubling, the black/white life expectancy gap has actually decreased by about 2.3 years between 1999 and 2013. And in 1950, that gap was almost twice as large.

Why the gap is shrinking

In a 2013 report, the CDC examined persistent causes for the racial gap in life expectancy in more detail.

“Higher death rates due to heart disease, cancer, homicide, diabetes, and perinatal conditions” accounted for 60% of the gap, the report noted. The report goes on to say that the gap would have been even larger “if not for the lower death rates for the black population for suicide, unintentional injuries, and chronic lower respiratory diseases.”

The changes that have caused the gap to narrow are more modest, but important. In its most recent report, the CDC noted that the gap has shrunk over time primarily because of “decreases in death rates for the black population for heart disease, cancer, HIV disease, unintentional injuries, and perinatal conditions, which together accounted for 59.1% of the 2.3-year decrease in the gap.” A rise in aortic aneurysm, Alzheimer’s disease, and maternal conditions among the black men and women had the opposite effect.

Below you can see the most significant changes behind the shrinking of the life expectancy gap:

Still, there is a long way to go. “Death rates for the black population [are] higher than those for the white population for 8 of the 15 leading causes of death,” the CDC has reported.

Parts of the Affordable Care Act are designed to address health disparities, and the life expectancy gap is narrowing. But we need to do better — we need to erase it.

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