Life Expectancy Drops For White Women, Increases For Black Men

Apr 20, 2016
Originally published on April 22, 2016 2:43 pm

White women are dying at a slightly younger age than in the past. That's according to a report released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics.

The life expectancy for non-Hispanic white women in the United States declined by one month — from 81.2 years to 81.1 years — from 2013 to 2014. Though one month may not seem like much, demographers worry — it's the first time since the government began keeping records that white women's life expectancy has declined, according to the report.

The numbers don't include cause of death, but demographer Elizabeth Arias, who wrote the analysis, decided to dig deeper. She looked at cause of death among white people in the U.S. over the past 15 years. And the changes she found troubled her.

"For the age group 25 to 54, suicide went up," she says. " 'Unintentional poisonings,' which is mainly alcohol and drug poisoning, and chronic liver disease — those went up by quite a bit."

Those underlying factors affected men and women, Arias says, but affected women more. The life expectancy of white men over the same time period did not change.

Many other causes of death declined, she says — including heart disease, cancer and stroke. But those health improvements were offset by the increases in drug overdose, suicide and chronic liver disease.

The report comes just a few months after a separate study by Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton showed that middle-age mortality among white people is on the rise. The authors of that study also said the increase in deaths was likely due to suicides, drug overdoses and alcoholism.

Ellen Meara, a professor at Dartmouth's Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, said the numbers are surprising because mortality has been in decline for so long.

"There are people for whom life expectancy is falling — and that's happening at a time where everywhere else and for every other group we're seeing all these amazing gains in survival," Meara says.

The NCHS report does have some good news: The average life expectancy for non-Hispanic black men increased by about a half-year — from 71.8 years to 72.2 in that same time period. Arias says that improvement seems linked to declines in cancer deaths, homicides and heart disease.

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There are new figures out for how long we live in America. It's a kind of snapshot of the country's well-being from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. NPR's Alison Kodjak is here with the numbers. Good morning.

ALISON KODJAK, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What did the report tell us?

KODJAK: Well, the report told us basically that life expectancy is unchanged. It's - we can expect to live about 78.8 years, almost 80. But it broke it down by race and gender. And the big winners in this case are black men. The report showed that black men's life expectancy has gone up almost six months, and that's a one-year change, which is pretty dramatic.

MONTAGNE: Well, it's pretty dramatic. They live to be how old?

KODJAK: 72.2 years. So their life expectancy is still lower than the general population.

MONTAGNE: And how is it that black men are seeing their situations improve?

KODJAK: Well, like I said, they're starting from a lower baseline. But they've been improving over the last several years. Those improvements start with better health care, better socioeconomic situation and less violence. The biggest declines in death rates were in cancer, homicide and heart disease.

MONTAGNE: And it does seem like a half-year increase in life expectancy is pretty big if the jump seems to be in a single year.

KODJAK: Yeah, it does seem really big. And I asked the researchers about that. And what I was really surprised by was they said that's the third time that's happened in recent years for this population, for black men.

MONTAGNE: Now, the gap between blacks and whites I gather is normally shrinking, but for women - white women, they're not doing so well?

KODJAK: No, that's one of the sad things in the report. The life expectancy for white women had declined, only by a month. But really, it's the first time that they've seen a decline in life expectancy for white women since they started getting the data. They - this data has been collected since about 1900, or at least they went back to 1900 to start collecting it. And the reasons are rather depressing. The researchers I spoke to said drug overdoses, suicide, alcoholism are the reasons that white women are dying younger.

MONTAGNE: And so clearly, there's some white women in this country who are in a crisis.

KODJAK: It sounds like that, doesn't it? I did try to ask the CDC researcher about that. Their report doesn't really go into the reasons why this is happening. But a few months ago, there was another report by researchers at Princeton that showed basically the same information. Middle-aged white people were dying of drug overdoses, alcoholism, suicide.

They speculated in that report that it had a lot to do with the financial strain from the financial crisis and what's been happening since then, the lack of recovery from that - and also the opioid epidemic. A lot of people are now addicted to drugs.

MONTAGNE: And just finally, anything else interesting in this study?

KODJAK: Yeah, well, what - there was a few other things that were interesting. Hispanics in the United States have the longest lifespans of anybody - any other group, both men and women and combined. And they are just generally doing better. If you're a Hispanic-American, you're going to live a little bit longer than the other populations.

MONTAGNE: Alison, thanks very much.

KODJAK: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Alison Kodjak on the new study out on life expectancy from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.