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Progress Watch

Racial gap in life expectancy reaches new low in US

Between 2003 and 2008, the gap in life expectancy between white and black men fell from 6.5 years to 5.4, Canadian researchers found. For women, it fell from 4.6 years to 3.7. 

By Mike EckelContributor / June 19, 2012

In this file photo, passengers wait for a train at a Metro station in New York City

Alfredo Sosa / The Christian Science Monitor / File

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The gap in life expectancy between blacks and whites in the United States, long attributed to socioeconomic disparities and a range of other factors, continued its historical decline between 2003 and 2008 and is now the smallest ever, Canadian researchers say in a new report.

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The study, which drew on data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other sources and was published in the June 6 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association, found an increase in life expectancy for both men and women, black and white.

The researchers from McGill University in Montreal noted a convergence in the rate of deaths from HIV and heart disease as contributing to the narrowing of the life expectancy gap.

However the biggest factor in the narrowing of the gap, the researchers said, was an increase in the number of deaths among whites attributed to prescription drug abuse.

“It is mostly a good news story, since life expectancy has increased for both groups,” says Sam Harper, an epidemiologist at McGill and lead author for the study. However, the findings that point to prescription drug abuse are “a potential cause for concern.”

The study found that the gap in life expectancy between black and white women of non-Hispanic origin closed to 3.7 years in 2008, down from 4.6 years in 2003. For men, the gap has closed to 5.4 years, down from 6.5 years.

Life expectancy at birth for white men now stands at 76.2 years, up from 75.3 years, compared with 70.8 years for black men, up from 68.8 years. For white women, life expectancy rose from 80.3 to 81.2 years, and for black women from 75.7 to 77.5 years.

The researchers looked at data compiled by the CDC and others and found that differences in the rates of heart disease, diabetes, homicide, HIV, and infant mortality remained the main reasons for the racial gap. Among men, heart disease and homicide were the two primary contributors; for women, the two contributors were heart disease and diabetes.

But the narrowing recorded over the five-year span of data points to shifts in “unintentional injury” rates, as well as HIV and heart disease, the study’s authors conclude. Most notably, within the category of unintentional injury, fatal poisonings were the leading increase among whites – by 58 percent for men and 74 percent for women between ages 20 and 54.

Dr. Harper said 80 to 90 percent of the unintentional poisoning deaths appear to be drug-related, and a big proportion of that due to opiates and abuse of prescription drugs such as oxycodone – a fact that mirrors growing public awareness of the problem of prescription drug abuse.

The authors pointed out that in earlier studies that looked at the period between 1993 and 2003, the life expectancy gap between blacks and whites had narrowed by nearly two years for men and one year for women.

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