News & Commentary

Death Rate for Older Black Americans Continues Declining This Century

The mortality gap between white and black America still exists, but it’s getting smaller. In fact, black Americans who reach age 65 are now expected to live longer than white Americans of the same age, according to a study by the CDC that looks at death rates for the 21st century.

Death rates among blacks and whites, by age group (years), 1999–2015

Deaths per 100,000 persons

Source: CDC

The study found that among adults ages 65 and older, the death rate in 2015 relative to that in 1999 declined 27% for blacks and 17% for whites. In 2010, the death rates crossed over; blacks in that age group had lower death rates than whites.

While both black and white Americans are living longer, the death rate for blacks has been dropping faster than for whites. At the beginning of the century, the life expectancy for black Americans at birth was 71.8 years; it was 77.3 years for whites. Now, black Americans have a life expectancy of 75.6; for whites, it’s 79 years. Go back to 1999, and look at the trend to 2015 and you’ll see that the death rate for blacks declined by 25%.

Heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States, kills blacks and whites at about the same rate, according to the CDC. However, blacks who are younger than 65 die more often from chronic diseases such as diabetes and stroke.

“Of concern, the study also found that blacks in their 20s, 30s, and 40s are more likely to live with or die from conditions that typically occur at older ages in whites…,” according to the CDC. “Risk factors for some diseases, such as high blood pressure, may go unnoticed and untreated during these early years.”

The biggest gap can be found in the homicide rate. For blacks ages 18 to 34, it is nine times higher than for whites. For blacks ages 35 to 49, it is five times higher than for whites. As the CDC notes, “the death rates for homicide among blacks did not change over the 17 years of the study.”

Leandris Liburd, the associate director of the CDC’s Office of Minority Health and Health Equity, said in a statement: “We have seen some remarkable improvements in death rates for the black population in these past 17 years. Important gaps are narrowing due to improvements in the health of the black population overall. However, we still have a long way to go. Early health interventions can lead to longer, healthier lives. In particular, diagnosing and treating the leading diseases that cause death at earlier stages is an important step for saving lives.”

How socioeconomic factors affect health should be taken into consideration, according of the CDC. “In all age groups, the analysis showed that blacks had lower educational attainment and home ownership and nearly twice the rate of poverty and unemployment as whites. These risk factors may limit blacks’ access to prevention and treatment of disease. Other risk factors that affect health outcomes for blacks include obesity and less physical activity.”


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