The first study to measure progress in life expectancy on a state-by-state basis shows that black women have made significant gains in life expectancy, overall, but in some parts of the country, particularly the South, they have made uneven and limited progress.
“We calculated life expectancy among black and white women and men in every state to see which states were improving,” says Sam Harper, Ph.D., lead researcher, Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
Comparing life-expectancy gains between black and white Americans is considered an important measure of health disparities. Nationally, the gap in life expectancy at birth, between black women and white women, shrank 1.7 years (from 5.5 to 3.8 years) over two decades, though white women and men still live longer in nearly every state.
Great Progress in the Northeast
Using data from the most recent United States Census and death certificates, the McGill team looked at the differences in life expectancy over a period of 19 years (1990–2009) in 45 states and the District of Columbia. “We did not include states like Vermont because the black population was too small to make accurate calculations,” Harper says.
In addition, some states that showed dramatic changes might be considered outliers, unreliable indicators of the life span of black Americans, because the measurable black population is small — less than 2 percent in most cases.
The measurements are “the most precise in states with larger black populations,” Harper says.
In several states with significant black populations, black women enjoy long lives and the longevity gap is narrowing, according to the study. Black female residents of New York top the list. They gained 6.8 years of life (to age 81) over 19 years; the state’s longevity gap between black and white women also dropped by more than three years. “This is a big, big change for longevity data,” Harper says.
New Jersey showed similar gains. Black women’s life expectancy increased by 5.9 years over the 19-year period (to 78.7 years) and the longevity gap decreased by 3 years. In Connecticut, black women gained 4.2 years of life, while the state’s longevity gap, among black and white women, narrowed by 2.4 years.
Disturbing Trends in the Nation’s Capital
At the other end of the spectrum, Washington, D.C., showed the biggest longevity gaps between black and white Americans in the nation. In 2009 white women lived 10.6 years longer than black women with a 0.2 percent increase in the gap over 19 years. Black women lived a little more than four years longer than in 1990, but their life expectancy is only 75.5 years, one of the lowest rates among women in the country.
The statistics for black men also suggest an ongoing public health crisis in the nation’s capital. In 2009, there was a longevity gap of 14.7 years among black men — the highest in the country, an increase of 0.4 percent since 1990.
The negative trends found in the Washington–metro area, however, did not extend to the suburbs, particularly Maryland, which has a large, black middle class. In that state, the gap between black women and white women was only 3.3 years in 2009, a decrease of 1.8 percent over 19 years. Black women also enjoyed a four-year increase in life expectancy, over the study period, to age 78.1.
Stubborn Disparities in the South
While black women in Nebraska had the lowest 2009 life expectancy (75.1 years) and a longevity gap that has increased by 0.2 years, several southern states showed similar life-expectancy rates, but “some small progress in the longevity gap,” Harper notes.
Arkansas had the second-lowest life expectancy in 2009 for black women at 75.3 years (an increase of only 1.8 years over the study period), but the state’s longevity gap narrowed by one-and-one-half years.
States with similar rates for black women include Mississippi, with a life expectancy of 75.4 years and a gap reduction of 1.8 years, and Louisiana with a life expectancy of 75.6 years and a gap reduction of 1.2 years.
Other Bright Spots
Among other states with a large population of black women, Florida’s life expectancy is high at 78.6 years, a gain of more than five years since 1990. The state’s longevity gap for black women has also dropped by 2.7 years.
Black women living in Georgia also enjoyed nearly a four-year increase in life span in the last 19 years (to age 77.4) and the longevity gap in the state has dropped by 2.4 years.
Low Population — Big Surprises
In some cases, the study showed large longevity-gap differences in states with very small black populations. For this reason, more extensive research might be needed to tease out more accurate numbers.
Hawaii, for example, has a life expectancy of 91.6 years for black women (up from 86.2 years in 1990) — the highest in the nation, and a reverse longevity gap (black women lived the longest) of 2.1 years. But the state’s black population is only 2.3 percent.
The state with the largest reduction in the longevity gap, four years, is Maine, where black women live about 80 years, but the state’s black population is about 1.4 percent.
Learning from the Numbers
In general, the study sheds more light on a fact proven repeatedly by recent research — place matters when it comes to health. The healthiest cities for black women track closely, in most cases, with greater access to high-quality health care and economic and educational opportunities.
The research did not link causes of death to the statistics for every state, “but we know from prior work that fewer deaths from HIV/AIDS and homicide played a role in New York’s life expectancy improvements,” Harper says.
In a message to policy experts, Harper adds: “Differences in black and white life expectancy are not fixed, we can change this. I hope health disparities experts can learn from our data and learn from the states that are making progress.”
Sheree Crute is co-founder and editor-in-chief of FierceforBlackWomen.com.