The racial gap in U.S. life expectancy has declined

Using state-level mortality data from the National Vital Statistics System, researchers estimated annual life expectancy by race for the period from 1990 to 2009. Over the twenty year period, the racial gap in life expectancy between blacks and whites declined nationally.

“Nationally, the black-white difference in life expectancy at birth shrank during the period by 2.7 years for males (from 8.1 to 5.4 years) and by 1.7 years for females (from 5.5 to 3.8 years).”

Sam Harper and colleagues, Health Affairs

However, state-level trends show considerable variation. The District of Columbia maintained the highest gap in life expectancy between blacks and whites. The gap closed the most for males in New York and for females in Wyoming. Analysis of the life expectancy gap across the nine regional census areas revealed significant variations, with the Middle Atlantic and New England areas seeing the sharpest decline in the gap.

It remains unclear how disease-specific mortality changes and other determinants drove the significant state-level differences. In 1990, both New York and California had a high racial inequality in life expectancy, but while New York narrowed the gap, California’s disparities continued over the twenty year period. The authors of the article in the journal Health Affairs suggest that major declines in homicide and HIV/AIDS deaths in New York boosted the life expectancy for blacks so much that it may have contributed significantly to narrowing the gap. Conversely, California’s improvements in heart disease and tobacco may have disproportionately benefited whites.