Nanny state policies, such as anti-tobacco and anti-obesity campaigns, are often criticized for being overbearing, but most have a similar initiative: increase the number of years we live and improve their quality while we live them. Unfortunately, certain groups have been left behind in the past, leading to life expectancy disparities based on race, gender, or financial status.

Researchers from Princeton University led a study examining the mortality rates among American youth based on socioeconomic status. The findings show that life expectancy gaps between the rich and poor may be unbalanced in older generations, but that youth in the United States will live a lot longer than they have in the past.

While the U.S. is considered a high-income country, it is also home to citizens with lower life expectancy than those of many other developed countries. Narrowing this gap has become a focal point for health agencies.

“Similar studies have focused on middle-aged and older people,” lead researcher Janet Currie told Medical Daily. “What’s different about our study is that we also looked at younger people. So it’s true that gaps in mortality are increasing among older people, but they are declining a lot among younger people. We think that’s because all of the policies that have been in place that affect younger people.”

Currie and her colleagues used life expectancy data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Vital Statistics Report. They ranked different groups of U.S. counties based on their poverty levels in 1990, 2000, and 2010.

Although the research team did find that the gap in mortality inequality had increased among older people, they also found significant improvements in younger generations up to the age of 20. Since America’s youth will inevitably become the country’s future adult population, the researchers are confident a narrowing of life expectancy among people under the age of 20 will lead to an overall decline moving forward.

“In the 80s and 90s, the U.S. expanded public health insurance for poor women and children,” Currie explained. “There are also things like expansions of the earned income tax credit, reductions in pollution, tobacco settlements, and anti-tobacco initiatives. The big picture is that these public health policies have had a positive effect on the health of younger people.”

In addition to the life expectancy gap between the rich and poor of America, evidence has shown that mortality rates among black and white communities across the U.S. have also started to even out. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirms that while life expectancy among America’s white population increased from 71.4 years in 1970 to 78.9 years in 2010, it also jumped from 64.1 years to 75.1 years for the black population.

Researchers from McGill University in Montreal recently examined this gap between black and white populations, and although they did find that it was narrowing, it only seemed to do so on a state-by-state basis. Mid-Atlantic states, such as New York and New Jersey, were able to narrow the mortality gap between black and white in the two decades between 1990 and 2010. However, states in the West, including California, were unable to bring these rates closer over that 20-year period.

Like Currie’s research team, the researchers from McGill attributed more comparable mortality rates to various policies and campaigns, but not the ones set up by the federal government. State legislation aimed toward decreasing the number of deaths linked to HIV/AIDS and homicides led to mortality equality in New York and New Jersey. The same could not be said for California and Texas. Global policies targeting HIV/AIDS and malaria have also reduced mortality gaps around the world.

Source: Schwandt H, Currie J, et al. Inequality in Mortality Decreased among the Young while Increasing for Older Adults, 1990-2010. Science. 2016.