What Causes Greater Variability in Lifespans In Black Americans?

Glenn Firebaugh, Ph.D. Roy C. Buck Professor of American Institutions, Sociology, and Demography College of the Liberal Arts The Pennsylvania State University University Park, PAMedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Glenn Firebaugh, Ph.D.
Roy C. Buck Professor of American Institutions, Sociology, and Demography
College of the Liberal Arts
The Pennsylvania State University University Park, PA

Medical Research: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Dr. Firebaugh: Lifespans are more variable for blacks than for whites in the United States. The objective of this study was to determine why. Is it because blacks are more likely to die of causes, such as homicide, that disproportionately strike the young and middle-aged, or because age at death varies more for blacks than for whites among those who die of the same cause? It is primarily the latter. For almost all causes of death, age at death varies more among black victims than it does among white victims, especially for women. To be sure, some youthful causes of death, such as homicide and AIDS, are more prevalent among blacks, accounting for some of the greater variances in blacks’ lifespans. But these causes are largely offset by higher rates of suicide and drug poisoning deaths among whites. As a result, differences in causes of death for blacks versus whites on net account for relatively little of the difference in lifespan variance for blacks and whites.

Medical Research: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?

Dr. Firebaugh: For patients, greater lifespan variability implies greater uncertainty about the future. Greater uncertainty about the future might affect one’s motivation to invest in education and in good health practices. For clinicians, it is important to recognize that, for virtually all major diseases, blacks are susceptible to death at younger ages (and thus over a broader age span) than whites are. There are excess deaths for blacks relative to whites from about age 20 to about age 75. The challenge is to find ways to reduce blacks’ overmortality at these ages.

Medical Research: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Dr. Firebaugh: A good place to begin is with our finding that women contribute twice as much to the racial disparity as men do. Regardless of the cause of death, age at death tends to be more variable for black women than for white women. The same is true for men, but the differences are less pronounced. In the case of heart disease, for example, the difference in variance in age at death is three times greater for black women versus white women than for black men versus white men. An important question for future research, then, is why do the cause-specific variances differ more for black women versus white women than for black men versus white men?

Citation:

Glenn Firebaugh, Francesco Acciai, Aggie J. Noah, Christopher Prather, Claudia Nau. Why Lifespans Are More Variable Among Blacks Than Among Whites in the United States. Demography, 2014; 51 (6): 2025 DOI: 10.1007/s13524-014-0345-

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