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Life expectancy in U.S. split along racial lines, especially in Wisconsin

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How long you can expect to live in the U.S. depends somewhat on the color of your skin, and the life expectancy for white people in some states is significantly higher, a new study shows.

What is termed the life expectancy gap shows that black Americans, on average, do not live as long as white Americans. Though that gap has been closing over recent years, there are parts of the U.S. that are lagging compared to other states.

The study, conducted by Health Affairs shows that the mid-western states, still show a discrepancy between black and white life expectancy and Wisconsin is the state that shows the largest gap.

The study goes back to 1990 and revealed back then that white men lived 8.1 years longer than black men on average. For white women the difference was 5.1 years longer than black women. Moving forward to 2009, the difference for white men is down to 5.4 years and in women it is down to 3.8 years.

"We've known for the past couple of years that the nationwide gap in life expectancy between blacks and whites has been going down, which is a good thing. But we didn't know at all how specific states had been doing," explained the study's lead author, Sam Harper of McGill University.

While the study showed that life expectancy has increased over the last 20 years for both whites and blacks, the data was different when looking at each state. The report showed that New York was out in front of the other U.S. states with regard to closing the racial gap shaving 5.6 years off their life expectancy gap for men, and 3.1 years for women.

On the opposite end of the spectrum was Wisconsin, where the life expectancy gap for whites and blacks actually widened 1.6 years for women and showed no change in the gap for men.

At least one member of the medical community in Wisconsin wasn't surprised by the study's findings.

"What you have here in Wisconsin is an environment which is not healthy for children of color, and this is the main driver of differences in life expectancy," said Geoffrey Swain, medical director at the City of Milwaukee Health Department. "Wisconsin has placed at the bottom on several indicators this year around race. This really feeds into what has been found from other outside researchers."

Harper added that the report found that the northeast made generally more progress than states in the west for both men and women in reducing the life expectancy gap among blacks and whites. He added that the hope is this data will open some eyes around the country.

"We want to know how to reduce these differences. Given that many social and health policies are implemented at the state level, looking at how specific states have fared can provide important clues for addressing these health inequalities. Our results should be of particular interest to state public health officials focused on reducing racial differences in health," Harper concluded.

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