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Life expectancy gap between races varies depending on geographic location

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New York is making the biggest inroads in reducing the life-expectancy gap between black and white residents, but overall there remains a huge variation across the U.S., according to new research published in the August issue of Health Affairs.

The research effort calculated annual state-specific life expectancies between 1990 and 2009. During that time the overall life expectancy gap decreased by 2.7 years for men and 1.7 years for females.

"Nationwide differences in U.S. life expectancy trends for blacks and whites may mask considerable differences by state that are relevant to policies aimed at reducing health inequalities," states the study's abstract.

"We found considerable variation across states in both the magnitude of the life expectancy gap (approximately 15 years) and the change during the past two decades (about six years)," notes the study.

"Our results depict considerable heterogeneity across states in their trajectories of improvement and raise many important questions about the origins of these patterns in state policies, migration patterns, and the geographic patterns of important risk factors," the authors write.

The states having the most success at closing the life-expectancy gap are those in the Middle Atlantic and New England regions. The Southern, Northern and Pacific regions reveal fewer gains, according to Sam Harper, one of the study researchers. Harper is an assistant professor of epidemiology, biostatistics, and occupational health at McGill University in Montreal.

In New York, for example, the study notes that decreased homicide rates and a drop in HIV-AIDS-related deaths have extended the life expectancy rate for the black population, which accounts for 3.1 million of the city's 8.3 million population.

The decreased deaths in those two specific areas "disproportionately benefited blacks in absolute terms and may go some way toward explaining the much larger change in black life expectancy in New York," state the authors.

According to the study, researchers tapped data from the National Vital Statistics system, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The biggest gap is in the District of Columbia, notes the study, where whites have a longer life expectancy of 14.4 years.

"Life expectancy [in the District of Columbia] remained dramatically more unequal than in every other state," the authors write.

The reverse is seen in states such as Alaska and Hawaii, where blacks had a longer life expectancy than whites as of 1990.

"Prior studies in the United States have shown that, for the nation as a whole, the difference in life expectancy between blacks and whites has declined over the past two decades," said Harper. "What was not known was how individual states have fared in reducing this gap."

The abstract notes the large state variations in the pace of change in life expectancy by race suggest that state-specific determinants should be investigated further.

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