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Black Americans Living Longer, More Whites Fatally Overdosing, Pitt Study Finds

Damian Dovarganes
Barber Eric Muhammad, owner of A New You Barbershop, left, jokes with regular customer Marc M. Sims before measuring his blood pressure in Inglewood, Calif., Sunday, March 11, 2018.

Black Americans are living longer lives than they were a quarter century ago.

That’s one of the big takeaways from a University of Pittsburgh study published by PLOS ONE last week. Public health researchers examined 60 million death records from the National Center for Health Statistics.

Lead author Jeanine Buchanich, a research associate professor in biostatistics at Pitt, and her team specifically looked of years of life lost, or YLL. That’s the length of time someone is expected to live, subtracted by their age when they die.

Black Americans have historically lived shorter lives than whites, but Buchanich’s study found that the YLL gap has narrowed significantly since 1990. She said this improvement is due largely to declining rates of heart disease, HIV and cancer deaths in African Americans in their 30s and 40s.

“It seems to show us that racial disparity and health outcome is not inevitable,” said Buchanich. “Now it’s time to do some further study to see why this happened and how we can build on it.”

Another area that saw noted improvement was that infant mortality rates have dropped across races—and the disparity between black and white Americans also decreased. Infant mortality rates dropped approximately 40 percent among black Americans, and about 33 percent for white Americans.

According to Buchanich, the black infant mortality rate is still about twice as high as whites.

“There is still work to be done," she said.

One area where white people have a higher portion of YLL than other groups is early death due to drug overdose, which Buchanich said can primarily be attributed to the opioid epidemic. In fact, there was a 6 percent increase in YLL for white adults between the ages of 20 and 64.

Buchanich says she next plans to add geography to her analysis to see if certain areas are more successful at addressing disparities than others.

WESA receives funding from the University of Pittsburgh.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio where she covered a range of issues, including the 2016 Iowa Caucuses.