"For both men and women, New York state made far and away the largest contribution to reducing the national black-white gap," Sam Harper says. (Credit: Marco Gomes/Flickr)

Some US states close life expectancy gap for blacks and whites

Racial differences in life expectancy have declined, but still vary substantially across US states, according to a new study.

Researchers calculated annual state-specific life expectancies for blacks and whites from 1990 to 2009 and found that progress was uneven across states during the past two decades.

“Prior studies in the United States have shown that, for the nation as a whole, the difference in life expectancy between blacks and whites has declined over the past two decades,” says Sam Harper of McGill University.

“What was not known was how individual states have fared in reducing this gap.”

Big improvements in New York

Published in the journal Health Affairs, the new study assesses for the first time how US states have performed over the past two decades.

“Some states have clearly done much better than others,” says Harper, the study’s first author. “For example, we found large improvements in New York, but the gap actually increased in Wisconsin. More generally, we found that states in the Northeast made considerably more progress than states in the West for both men and women, but even within regions of the US there was a lot of heterogeneity among states.”

The team used new statistical techniques coupled with data from death certificates and estimates of the population in each US state to calculate life expectancies, even for some states with small black populations.

“For both men and women, New York state made far and away the largest contribution to reducing the national black-white gap,” Harper says.

California and Texas

“However, other states with comparatively large black populations like California and Texas kept the national gap from closing more than it did. We know from prior work that fewer deaths from HIV/AIDS and homicide played a big role in New York’s life expectancy improvements. Our results suggest that other states may benefit from a detailed study of how and why the gap decreased so much in New York.”

Harper says the results should be of particular interest to state public health officials.

“We want to know how to reduce these differences. Given that many social and health policies are implemented at the state level, looking at how specific states have fared can provide important clues for addressing these health inequalities.”

The Fonds de Recherche du Québec—Santé and the Canada Research Chairs Program supported the study.

Source: McGill University

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