Department of Sociology

Bridging the Longevity Gap: Sociologists Seek to Increase Life Expectancies for African Americans, Hispanics

Wed, June 1, 2011

Thanks to improvements in education, standards of living, public health and medicine, Americans are living longer than ever.

Life expectancy in the United States has risen from 47 years in 1900 to 78 today. By 2050 the nation will have more than one million centenarians, according to the Census Bureau.

Now the troubling news: According to the National Center for Health Statistics, African Americans, on average, die five years earlier than whites. Currently white life expectancy is 78.2 years, while for blacks it’s 72.9.

Although the life expectancy gap between blacks and whites has declined from about seven years in 1993 to about five years in 2007, the wheels of progress are moving way too slowly, says Robert Hummer, Centennial Commission Professor of Sociology and faculty research associate at the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin.

“Five years might seem like a modest gap, but lives are being lost prematurely and not in a color-blind fashion,” says Hummer, a leading scholar in social demography who specializes in U.S. adult mortality patterns and trends.

To investigate the root causes of the black-white longevity gap, Hummer and Juanita Chinn, a sociology doctoral candidate at The University of Texas at Austin, reviewed findings from previous research on U.S. adult mortality rates. They also analyzed new data from the National Health Interview Survey-Linked Mortality Files. Their findings are published as the lead article in a special issue on racial inequality and health of the Du Bois Review.

The researchers found historically-based differences in socioeconomic resources like educational attainment and high-paying jobs explain as much as 70 percent of the gap in mortality rates between black and white adults in the United States.

According to their paper, 75,000 to 100,000 more blacks die prematurely than whites each year. Compared to whites, blacks continue to have higher death rates from most of the leading causes of death, including heart disease, cancer, stroke, accidents and diabetes.

Unfortunately, the findings were not very surprising, Hummer and Chinn said. But rather than revealing new and unknown mortality patterns, Hummer said the goal of the study was to provoke a call to action.

“The key issue for the black-white mortality gap is socioeconomic resources rather than healthcare,” Hummer said. “If we truly want to eliminate disparities in mortality, we need to tackle difficult issues on the social policy agenda that aren’t simple or politically popular like racial disparities in wages, wealth, quality of schools and access to college.”

Despite the large body of evidence that shows a strong correlation between shorter life expectancies and higher levels of poverty, Hummer and Chinn’s paper also shows Hispanics have a longer life expectancy – about 80 years – than non-Hispanic whites and blacks.

In terms of overall life expectancy, the current situation for Hispanics appears to be good. However, Hummer notes, there is a risk in assuming Hispanic mortality patterns will always be favorable compared to other racial and ethnic groups. While Hispanic immigrants tend to be very healthy upon arrival in the United States, research has shown that their health diminishes over time and across generations as they assimilate into American society, he said.

“Hispanics have significantly lower levels of wealth, education and income compared to whites,” Hummer said. “And if that doesn’t change, there’s a chance their good health and longevity patterns will deteriorate over time.”

According to the Census Bureau, about 40 million blacks and 200 million whites live in the United States. And by 2050, the Hispanic population is expected to triple from 46.7 million to 132.8 million. Given the nation’s changing demographics, Hummer said policymakers should work now to create equality in socioeconomic resources.

“The purpose of this study is to remind policymakers that we fell way short of our national health goal that aimed to eliminate health disparities by 2010,” Hummer said. “Without aggressive efforts to create equality in socioeconomic resources, black-white disparities in mortality will remain wide and future generations of Hispanic adults will be faced with serious challenges in maintaining their currently long life expectancy.”

Courtesy of Jessica Sinn, College of Liberal Arts, UT-Austin

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  • Department of Sociology

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