The Racial Life Expectancy Gap in the U.S.

••• Getty Images Credit: Ronnie Kaufman/Larry Hirshowitz

Life expectancy is in the United States is determined by your year of birth, race, and sex. For example, if you were born in the year 2000, and the life expectancy was 70 years for your sex and race, you could be expected to live—on average—to the year 2070.

While the U.S. has previously been a world leader in life expectancy, data from recent years indicates a shift in the opposite direction.

For a baby born in 2020, the average life expectancy was 77.8 years—75.1 years for males and 80.5 years for females. Compared to 2019's life expectancies of 76.3 years for males and 81.4 years for females, 2020 life expectancies declined. The drops may sound small, but they are statistically significant.

Race-Based Life Expectancy

Life expectancies based on race are from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) data, which is available up through 2014. In 2014, life expectancy for the U.S. for all races was 78.9 years. Based on race, life expectancies were as follows:

  • Native Americans: 75.06 years
  • African Americans: 75.54 years
  • White Americans: 79.12 years
  • Hispanic Americans: 82.89 years
  • Asian Americans: 86.67 years

Based on 2014 data, there is clearly a racial gap in life expectancy, with Asian Americans expected to live more than 11 years longer than Native Americans and African Americans.

Determinants of Racial Life Expectancy

There are three main determinants of life expectancy that impact the racial gap:

  • Economic Circumstances
  • Medical and Behavioral Issues
  • Geographic and Environmental Conditions

Economic Circumstances

A study by Princeton in 2012 showed that 80% of the racial life expectancy gap between Black and White men could be attributed to socioeconomic factors. About 70% of the gap between Black and White women can be attributed to socioeconomic factors.

Income can be attributed to 52% of the difference for men and 59% for women. Other socioeconomic factors that are involved are education, occupation, unemployment, marital status, and homeownership.

Note

Many of these factors—and especially income—can cause high levels of stress, which can lead to lower life expectancy.

Several of the states with the lowest life expectancies—such as Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky—are also some of the states with the highest poverty rates. Those who live in poverty often have less access to education, health care, nutritional food, housing, and other factors which can help lead to better health outcomes.

Medical and Behavioral Issues

In 1990, there was a seven-year life expectancy difference between Black and White Americans. By 2014, it had dropped to a little over three years. Even as the life expectancy gap between Black and White Americans narrowed, life expectancy started to decrease in the general population after reaching a high in 2014.

By 2017, both the suicide rate and the rate of drug overdoses had climbed, primarily for White Americans. Suicide was more prevalent among White Americans in rural areas where wages have been stagnant and jobs have been scarce. Drug overdoses were most often found in more urban areas. Sociologists call these deaths "dying of despair."

Note

Heart disease and cancer remain the top two causes of death.

Asian Americans again have the longest life expectancy in regard to health and medical issues—largely due to their diet, which is more likely to include more fish, rather than red meat. Both White and Black Americans tend to eat more red meat and less fish. Hispanic Americans eat more legumes, rather than red meat.

Geographic and Environmental Conditions

There are particular geographic or environmental conditions which affect life expectancies. Life expectancies are high in Hawaii, likely due to the higher Asian American population and the prevalence of healthier diets.

Life expectancies tend to be lower in the southern U.S. In those states, residents are twice as likely to be smokers than someone who lives in Utah, for example. However, tobacco growth has a long history in the region; this is one example of geographic/environmental factors that impact life expectancy.