Due to certain causes of death that specifically target members of the black community such as cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, and homicide, the life expectancy gap between black and white people remains a constant source of public health concern. A recent study conducted at McGill University in Montreal has revealed that although life expectancy differences between black and white people have declined across the United States as a whole, these differences tend to vary on a state-by-state basis.

"We want to know how to reduce these differences,” Dr. Sam Harper, the study’ lead author from the Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics & Occupational Health in the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University, said in a statement. “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. Our results should be of particular interest to state public health officials focused on reducing racial differences in health."

Harper and his colleagues tracked annual life expectancy data among members of the black and white communities across U.S. states. Findings from the study were reached by combining statistical analyses with death certificate information and population estimates in the each state between 1990 and 2009, including those with a smaller black population. The research team indicated that life expectancy differences between black and white people are a deep concern for health care professionals and could be tied to deeper social inequities.

Results of this assessment showed that life expectancy statistics among black people in Mid-Atlantic states such as New York and New Jersey were much higher in 1990 compared to states in the West like California and Colorado. However, over the 20-year period the study covered the life expectancy gap in Northeastern states like New York and New Jersey narrowed out while the gap in western states like California remained the same. That’s not to say California did little to improve life expectancy statistics. In fact, the life expectancy data among black and white improved drastically in California, but the gap between the two did not come any closer.

Although researchers from McGill University did not set out to determine how socioeconomic or other factors play a role in life expectancy differences between white and black communities, their study is supported by previous research surrounding a decline in deaths attributed to HIV/AIDS and homicides in New York. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HIV/AIDS and homicide-related deaths are a significant cause for concern among members of the black community. Legislation and campaigns geared towards decreasing the number of deaths caused by HIV/AIDS and homicide in New York and New Jersey over the past 20 years could explain the black and white life expectancy gap narrowing in these states.

On the other hand, states like California have done well over the past 20 years in strengthening smoking legislation and curbing the number of heart disease-related deaths. While these programs have individually benefited the life expectancy rates among black and white people they have done little to narrow the gap in this dissention. Perhaps states like California would benefit from campaigns and legislation that target causes of death influencing the life expectancy gap between black and white people which include diabetes, HIV/AIDS, and homicide.

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

Source: Kaufman J, MacLehose R, Harper S. Trends In The Black-White Life Expectancy Gap Among US States, 1990–2009. Health Affairs. 2014.