In the United States, white males live about seven years longer on average than black men, and white women live more than five years longer than their black counterparts, new research suggests. The results indicate that the United States still needs to improve the health of African-Americans, the researchers add.
The researchers collected data on mortality from disease-related deaths, accidents and intentional deaths like murder and suicide. They studied death certificate data from 1997 through 2004, covering more than 17 million people from all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. The researchers noted race/ethnicity, sex, the age at death and the state where each subject was born, lived and died. [Race & Life Expectancy in 50 States]
National life expectancy, also referred to as average life span, was almost 75 years for white men and about 67.5 years for black men. Women fared a little better with white women having an average life span of nearly 80 years and black women about 74.5 years. This narrower gap for females held true in every state.
They analyzed the U.S. state-by-state and discovered that New Mexico had the smallest disparities between blacks and whites (a gap of 3.76 years for men and 2.45 years for women), while the District of Columbia had the largest (13.77 years for men and 8.55 years for women). [States' Gaps in Race & Life Expectancy]
In states where the gap was smaller, the difference wasn't because blacks were better off than in other states (they weren't); rather, it came from the whites living shorter lives.
"There is an assumption that large disparities are bad because vulnerable populations are not doing as well as they should, while areas with small disparities are doing a better job at health equity," study researcher Nazleen Bharmal, of the University of California, Los Angeles, said in a statement. "We show that the reason there are small disparities in life expectancy is because white populations are doing as poorly as black populations, and the goal in these states should be to raise health equity for all groups."
In states with the largest disparities, the gap was greater because blacks' lives were shorter than the national average and whites' life spans were equal to or greater than the national average.
Fifty-eight percent of blacks live in 10 states: New York, California, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, North Carolina, Maryland, Missouri and Louisiana. Eliminating the gaps in just these states, the researchers said, would bring the national disparity down substantially.
The study was published in the February 2012 issue of the journal Health Services Research.
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.
Jennifer Welsh is a Connecticut-based science writer and editor and a regular contributor to Live Science. She also has several years of bench work in cancer research and anti-viral drug discovery under her belt. She has previously written for Science News, VerywellHealth, The Scientist, Discover Magazine, WIRED Science, and Business Insider.