From the Journals

Race drives disparities in life expectancy across states



Life expectancy in the United States plateaued in recent years, and persistent racial disparities vary by state, according to an analysis of death records and Census data from 1990 to 2019.

“Life expectancy is an important measure of the health of the entire population,” corresponding author Gregory Roth, MD, a cardiologist at the University of Washington, Seattle, said in an interview. “We know race, ethnicity and where you live all affect health, but we wanted to look at the long arc over many decades to understand where subpopulations have been, and where they are headed. Also, it is important to understand how race and place interact, so we looked at race/ethnicity groups within each state to see where disparities exist that need to be addressed.”

In the study, published in Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers led by Catherine O. Johnson, PhD, of the University of Washington, Seattle, reviewed data from 23 states, using regression models based on Census data and deidentified death records. They examined life expectancy for subgroups of individuals reporting Hispanic, non-Hispanic Black, or non-Hispanic White race or ethnicity.

Overall, most states showed an improvement in life expectancy between 1990 and 2019. For women, the mean life expectancy across states increased from 79.3 years in 1990 to 81.3 years in 2019. For men, the mean life expectancy across states increased from 72.6 years in 1990 to 76.3 years in 2019.

However, the researchers found significant disparities across the three racial subgroups between and within states when life expectancy was examined by race/ethnicity, independent of the average life expectancy for an entire state overall. They defined disparity as the difference in life expectancy between states for those in different racial/ethnic groups.

Without considering race/ethnicity, disparities in life expectancy across states decreased from 8.0 years and 12.2 years in 1990 to 7.9 and 7.8 years in 2019, for females and males, respectively.

When race/ethnicity was taken into account, disparities in life expectancy decreased, but the differences across states were greater than when race was not considered; 20.7 years for females and 24.5 years for males in 1990, decreasing to 18.5 years for females and 23.7 years for males in 2019.

Despite the overall improvements, disparities in life expectancy persisted across all states within each race/ethnicity group.

Among females, for example, non-Hispanic Black females had the lowest mean life expectancy across states in 1990 (74.2 years) but had the greatest improvement on average (6.9% increase) by 2019. However, the mean LE for non-Hispanic Black females remained lower than it did for non-Hispanic White and Hispanic females.

Among males, the researchers found differences in life expectancies across states between the people of the three different ethnicities they studied. The greatest difference in life expectancies in 1990 was 24.5 years. This occurred between non-Hispanic Black males in the District of Columbia and Hispanic males in Georgia. The life expectancy for these non-Hispanic Black males was 59.4 years, versus 83.8 years for these Hispanic males that year.

This reduced life expectancy for non-Hispanic Black males persisted, although it improved slightly by 2019. That year, the largest race-based disparity – which was approximately 24 years – occurred between non-Hispanic Black males in the District of Columbia and Hispanic males in Virginia. For the Hispanic males in Virgina, the LE was 90.7 years versus 66.9 years for non-Hispanic Black males in the District of Columbia.

The findings were limited by several factors including the review of data from only 23 states, the focus on life expectancy from birth versus other ages, and the challenges of defining Hispanic ethnicity, the researchers noted. However, the results support that the potential use of state-level analysis that includes race/ethnicity could be a valuable tool for measuring health inequity as part of national average trends, they said.


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