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Who lives longer, blacks or whites? That varies state-by-state, says study

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The difference in life expectancy between white and black Americans has dropped nationally. In 1990, white men tend to live a little over eight years longer than black men and white women live 5.5 years longer than their black counterparts. In two decades, the figures have dropped to 5.4 years in men and 3.8 years in women.

A new study, however, shows that despite the shrinking gap in life expectancy between blacks and whites, the discrepancy in racial life expectancy varies across states.  In the study published in the August issue of the journal Health Affairs, Geoffrey Swain, from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, and colleagues used information from death certificates and census data to calculate the annual life expectancy for whites and blacks by state for the period covering 1990 to 2009.

The researchers found that while the national racial life expectancy gap has been narrowing over time, some states performed better than the others at closing the gap. The researchers also noted that Midwestern states lag behind northeastern states. In Wisconsin, for instance, the gap in life expectancy has actually worsened with the difference increasing significantly, particularly in women.

From 1990 to 2009, the life expectancy gap in black and white men in Wisconsin increased from 7.7 to 7.9 years. In women, the gap jumped from 4.9 years to 6.4 years over the course of the 20-year period. The widened gap is due to the life expectancy of black Wisconsin women only improving by 0.4 years over 20 years while the life expectancy of their white counterparts jumped by two years during the same period.  

"It does not reflect well on Wisconsin that we have such a large life expectancy gap between blacks and whites to begin with," Swain said.

As for other states, New York outperformed all other states in closing the life expectancy gap reducing the discrepancy by 5.6 years in men and 3.1 years in women. California and Texas, however, have less favorable trends.

"Decomposition analysis showed that New York made the most profound contribution to reducing the gap, but less favorable trends in a number of states, notably California and Texas, kept the gap from shrinking further," the researchers wrote.

The racial difference in life expectancy in the U.S. is a public health concern and is viewed as an indication of social inequality. Swain and colleagues said that the findings of their study could be of help to state public health officials who are focused in decreasing health-related racial discrepancies.

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