The Racial Life Expectancy Gap in the U.S.

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

Life expectancy by race in the United States is stated from the year of birth. As an example, if you were born in the year 2000 and the life expectancy was 70 years for your gender and race, you would be expected to live, on average, to the year 2070.

In the mid-20th century, the U.S. was a world leader in life expectancy. For a baby born in 2016, average life expectancy was 78.6 years. That was a drop from 78.7 years in 2015. This drop may sound small, but it was statistically significant. The average life expectancy also dropped by 0.1 years from 2014 to 2015. It was the first drop in life expectancy for all races in the U.S. since 1993 and the first multi-year drop since 1962-1963.  

Based on average life expectancy, the United States ranked 31st in the world in 2015 behind a number of countries usually considered less well-developed. The top five countries in terms of life expectancy in 2015 were Japan, Switzerland, Singapore, Australia, and Spain. Since then, Spain has taken over the top spot.

Race-Based Life Expectancy

Life expectancies based on race are from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) data which is available up until 2014. It happens that 2014 is the year in which the highest life expectancy occurred and it has been declining slightly since that time. The life expectancy for the U.S. for all races was 78.9 years. Based on race, life expectancies in 2014 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

There is a racial gap in life expectancy in 2014 with Asian Americans living over 11 years as long as Native Americans and African Americans. Hispanic Americans are close to the top with Asian-Americans and White Americans are somewhere in the center. The racial gap seems to follow the anecdotal data from 2014 forward to the current time although there is evidence it is narrowing in the present day.  

Determinants of Racial Life Expectancy

A number of sources seem to agree on the determinants of life expectancy that impact the racial gap:

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

Economic Circumstances

A 2012 study 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 home ownership.

All of these factors, particularly income, can cause high levels of stress which can lead to lower life expectancy.

Many Asian-Americans have higher paying jobs in industry or academia which will raise their life expectancy. Native Americans may experience just the opposite with regard to income levels and this will lower their life expectancy.

Medical and Behavioral Issues

In 1990, the life expectancy difference between black and white men was seven years. In 2014, it had dropped to a little over three years. Even as the life expectancy gap between black and white Americans narrowed, the life expectancy started to drop in the general population after a high in 2014. In 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 scarce for years now. Drug overdoses were most often found in more urban areas. Sociologists call this dying of despair. Heart disease and cancer remain the top two causes of death.

Asian-Americans again win the life expectancy lottery with regard to health and medical issues, largely due to their diet, which includes high levels of fish consumption instead of red meat. Both White and Black Americans tend to eat more red meat and less fish. Hispanic Americans eat more legumes as opposed to red meat.

Geographic and Environmental Conditions

There are particular geographic or environmental conditions which affect life expectancies. Life expectancies are high in Hawaii, primarily because of the high concentration of population of Asian-Americans and a healthy diet. Asian-Americans also live in the Northeast corridor and contribute to an increase in life expectancy there.

Life expectancies tend to be lower in the southern U.S. because of diet and high rates of smoking. Southern cooking is not known to be particularly healthy. Since tobacco was widely grown in the south, southerners became smokers and many still are.

The scourge in both our urban and rural areas in the U.S. and particularly among the white American population is the relatively new phenomenon of despair. It seems to be having a bigger effect on our life expectancies in the U.S. than even gun violence since homicide falls lower on the list of causes of death than suicide.