Race Drives Disparities in Life Expectancy Across States

Heidi Splete

June 29, 2022

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.

Health Has Truly Stagnated for Some in Certain States

"Subpopulations in some states have much longer life expectancy now than 30 years ago. But in some states, we were struck by how health has truly stagnated for some," Roth said in an interview. "We were surprised by the scale of the overall gap; a difference of about 8 years between states is more than twice that if you drill down to race/ethnicity groups in each state."

A key message from the study is the need for all clinicians to advocate for improved access to primary care, "which is increasingly hard to obtain for many people," said Roth. "So much of health is determined by key risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, alcohol use, tobacco use. But many of the determinants of health are not in the healthcare system, and include efforts to improve education, interrupt cycles of poverty, and teach healthy behaviors at a very young age. "Racism remains a underdiscussed part of these disparities, and we need better ways to measure the impact of social policies that end up impacting health down the road," he said.

Looking ahead: "There is a lot to be learned from the states that have improved life expectancy the most. We need researchers to work together to identify and communicate what are those best practices, and what state governments can do to play their part."

State-Level Differences Reveal Variations in Health Care

"The findings add to our growing knowledge of large and persistent racial/ethnic health disparities and changes in disparities during recent stagnation in U.S. life expectancy," wrote Hedwig Lee, PhD, of Washington University in St. Louis, and Kathleen M. Harris, PhD, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in an accompanying editorial.

The focus on state-level differences provides a unique window into the huge variation in life expectancy by race/ethnicity across the United States. The data suggest that "a person's life expectancy in the United States may depend more on where you live than it has in the past," they noted. For example, the editorialists highlighted that life expectancy for non-Hispanic Black men in 2019 averaged 81.1 years in Rhode Island, but 66.9 years in the District of Columbia.

They also noted the study's lack of data for many states with high mortality rates and high proportions of non-Hispanic Black persons, Hispanic persons, and those with low socioeconomic states. Including data from these areas may have yielded even greater disparities in life expectancy.

"Despite substantial declines in mortality among Black persons during the study period, a non-Hispanic Black person's life expectancy remained persistently lower than that of non-Hispanic White and Hispanic persons, both within and across states," the editorialists wrote. "Future research needs to unpack the complex web of factors driving health and well-being by enabling better understanding of the places where we see persistent health disadvantage and advantage and the state-based explanations for these increasingly important differences determining population risk and resilience. We should be outraged by disparities in longevity and called to act to eliminate them."

Identifying the Problem Is the First Step

"In order to address or fix a problem we should first identify and quantify the problem," Noel Deep, MD, an internal medicine physician in private practice in Antigo, Wisc., said in an interview.

"This study provides us with the information regarding the trends in life expectancy within states and the disparities in life expectancy when race/ ethnicity and gender are factored into the equation," said Deep, who was not involved in the study. "Based on previously available data, we are aware of the increase in life expectancy in the United States over the last few decades, as well as differences in life expectancy for the different ethnicities/races and genders, but these data provide averages, not state or geographical differences. By having this knowledge at a state level, we can use that data to make health policies that address those health inequities and allocate appropriate resources at a state or local level."

Several studies have identified disparities in health care and life expectancy based on the zip codes, such as the U.S. Small-Area Life Expectancy Estimates Project in 2018. The current study "provides further information for health care professionals and policy makers about the disparities in health outcomes and life expectancy based on race as well as gender, and it is quite detailed," he said.

"As clinicians, we should strive to ensure that we are addressing these health inequities through our provision of clinical care and through our advocacy on behalf of our patients so that our nation's health will improve overall," he said.

"I would like to see future studies look at the socioeconomic status (income), urban versus rural residence, and place of birth (especially for immigrants)," said Deep. He also emphasized a need for studies to include the demographics for Hispanic populations; given the possible selection error "because of only healthy individuals immigrating to the United States or the older sicker Hispanics who might be migrating back to their homelands and not being included in the data and falsely increasing the life expectancy for this race/ ethnic groups.

"I would also like to see some research into the cultural and social factors that might explain why Hispanic populations might have a higher life expectancy even if their socioeconomic status is poor," he said.

The study was supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. The researchers had no financial conflicts to disclose. The editorialists had no financial conflicts to disclose. Deep had no financial conflicts to disclose, but serves on the editorial advisory board of Internal Medicine News and as chair of the AMA's Council on Science and Public Health.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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