The gap in life expectancy between whites and blacks in America has narrowed, reaching the lowest point ever recorded, a new study shows.
White men and women born in the United States can still expect to outlive black men and women by about three to five years. But the new report shows that from 2003 to 2008, the gap declined by roughly a year for both men and women.
The chasm in life expectancy between blacks and whites, though historically a large one, has steadily decreased over the last two decades. Much of the narrowing has come from faster declines in mortality rates among blacks for things like heart disease, homicide and H.I.V. infection. But the new study also reveals a less encouraging reason for the tightening of the gap: a spike in the rate of drug-related deaths among whites.
Over all, the new study found that from 2003 to 2008, the difference in life expectancy between black and white men shrank from 6.5 to 5.4 years, with black men expected to live 70.8 years, compared with 76.2 years for non-Hispanic white men. For white and black women, the gap slimmed from a nearly five-year difference to a 3.7-year difference, with black women born in America now expected to live about 77.5 years, compared with 81.2 years for non-Hispanic white women.
Though the decline began in 1993, the authors of the new report, which was published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, said they were surprised by the quick pace of narrowing between 2003 and 2008. They calculated that faster declines in the rate at which blacks were dying from H.I.V. compared with whites, for example, were responsible for about 15 percent of the change in the life expectancy gap between black and white men, and about 8 percent of the decline between black and white women. Changes in outcomes for heart disease, meanwhile, were responsible for roughly 15 percent of the decrease in the racial gap among men, and about 29 percent of the change among women.
One of the most striking contributors to the narrowing life expectancy gap, though, was poisonings. In the five-year period beginning in 2003, the death rates for “unintentional poisonings” rose by 15 to 20 percent for black men and women. But for white men and women, the rates skyrocketed by 60 to 75 percent and were particularly dramatic among younger people, ages 20 to 54.
Up to 90 percent of those poisoning deaths were drug-related, said Sam Harper, an author of the study and assistant professor in the department of epidemiology, biostatistics and occupational health at McGill University in Montreal. He noted that estimating the fraction that involved recreational drug use is difficult but that painkiller and opiate abuse - a growing problem - may have played a role.
“Our results are certainly consistent with the nationwide increase in painkiller abuse and overdose mortality in recent years,” he said, “and suggest that this phenomenon is currently affecting whites to a greater degree than blacks.”
Dr. Harper said the drug statistic tempered the otherwise good news about the diminishing gap. “Everyone agrees that it’s a good thing for the racial gap in life expectancy to decrease,” he said. “But we don’t want to see the gap decline because of mortality increases among whites.”