Could a Drop in Medical Racism Account For Why the Life Expectancy Gap Has Narrowed?

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Black elderly couple
Black elderly couple

The racial life expectancy gap is narrowing. Whites in the United States have historically lived longer than Blacks, and that remains the case today. But a newly released study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that in 2013 the average African-American life span was 75.5 years, and the average white life span was 79 years. This indicates that the life expectancy gap between the races is shrinking, since in 1999 whites lived on average six years longer than Blacks.

Researchers haven’t found just one reason why the life expectancy gap is narrowing. They’ve speculated, however, that lower rates of death from heart disease, HIV, cancer and accidents in the Black community may be contributing factors.

“You can’t know if there’s been a change in the number of people getting these diseases, or changes in the treatment,” Diane Sperling Lauderdale, a University of Chicago epidemiologist told the Chicago Tribune.

Lauderdale agreed, though, that advances in the treatment of heart disease, HIV and cancer possibly contributed to the Black rise in life expectancy from 71 years in 1999 to four-and-a-half years longer in 2013.

“So, I think it’s likely that there’s been improved access to those therapies (for Blacks),” Lauderdale said.

Giving African-Americans quality care appears to be the key in improving their life expectancy rates. A study in the journal, Circulation, that examined the care Black and white veterans received found that when both groups had access to equal care, Blacks actually outlived whites. This upended the idea that African-Americans are naturally inclined to die earlier than whites. It also revealed that in the general population, racial biases in health care may be the reason why Blacks suffer from higher fatality rates than whites. In fact, a study released last year in the New England Journal of Medicine found that racial disparities in hospital care were finally waning, particularly for those suffering from acute myocardial infarction, heart failure and pneumonia.

All too often Blacks have been accused of causing their own untimely demises. They’ve been criticized for waiting too long to get treatment or distrusting the health care system. The deeply racist roots of American medicine, including segregated hospitals, forced sterilizations of Black women and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, have been ignored as Blacks have faced disapproval for distancing themselves from health care institutions.

Historic racism in health care continues to haunt the African-American community, but the CDC study signals that perhaps Blacks today are getting better medical care than they have at any point in U.S. history. Advances in health care have particularly benefited Black women. Lower heart disease deaths played the greatest role in increasing life expectancy for Black women and Black men alike, but especially for the former.

“That was really striking,” Kenneth Kochanek, a lead researcher on the study, said. “Everyone knows that heart disease deaths have been going down in the U.S. But it looks like there’s been a big impact for African-Americans.”

While the CDC study highlights huge health gains for Blacks, challenges continue. African-Americans die disproportionately from medical conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease, hypertension, aortic aneurysm and pregnancy complications.

Studies on racism and depression have found that Blacks exposed to discrimination felt increased anxiety and stress, emotional states that can raise one’s blood pressure. Over time racism can be toxic. This means that until racial bias in the United States is eradicated, it will be impossible to know the precise toll that racism has had on the well-being of African-Americans.

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