U.S. Life Expectancy Gap Widens

Differences in life expectancies among dissimilar groups of American citizens are drastic, says a study released Monday by Harvard researchers Christopher J. L. Murray ’83, Sandeep C. Kulkarni ’04, and Majid Ezzati.

Asian-American women from Bergen County, N.J., have the highest national life expectancy—91 years—while Native Americans from South Dakota can expect to live only 58 years.

Just two years after Democratic vice-presidential candidate John Edwards spoke of “two Americas”—haves and have-nots—the study suggests that there are in fact “eight Americas” divided by race, class, and geography.

One of the eight Americas, the 10 million Asians living in the country, “have one of the highest levels of life expectancy on record,” Murray said in a statement Monday. The life expectancy of Asian-Americans is 85.3 years, higher than any single country’s.

“But tens of millions of other Americans have levels more typical of middle-income or low-income developing countries,” Murray continued. Blacks in high-crime urban areas have a life expectancy of 70.8 years, lower than Vietnam, Egypt, and North Korea.

The life expectancy gap has been increasing since 1984. According to the study, disparities in life expectancy are caused not by commonly-blamed factors such as poverty, infant mortality, violence, HIV/AIDS, and lack of health insurance, but rather by chronic noncommunicable diseases. Five factors are most deadly: tobacco, alcohol, obesity, high blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol.

Disparities in death-rates primarily affect young and middle-age adults. The researchers recommended that public-health efforts target these age groups.

In life expectancy, as in real estate, what matters is location, location, location.

In a telephone interview with The Crimson, Ezzati said that “health problems seem to be geographically focused.

Whites in the northern plains may have the same income level as whites in Appalachia, but they consistently fare better in terms of life expectancy.”

According to the study, the “healthiest” states include California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Dakota, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Washington, which have combined male-female life expectancies above 78 years, which is the European average. Washington D.C. is the unhealthiest place to live, with a combined life expectancy of 72 years, on par with the Gaza Strip.

Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and South Carolina, all have combined life expectancies under 75 years—lower than Mexico and Saudi Arabia.

Middlesex County, which includes Cambridge, fares well; men here can expect to live 76.8 and women 81.4 years.

The study seeks to raise awareness that America faces huge national health challenges. “Messages about these factors aren’t getting to people who need to hear them the most,” said Ezzati.

Nevertheless, it’s not all gloom and doom. The disparities in death rates are caused mostly by preventable or treatable diseases.