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Researchers say the gap in life expectancy between white and Black Americans had narrowed before the COVID-19 pandemic. AJ Watt/Getty Images
  • Researchers say the COVID-19 pandemic reversed a promising trend in life expectancy by widening the gap between white and Black Americans.
  • Experts say the type of jobs people of color held during the pandemic as well as the higher rate of pre-existing health conditions in those communities were prime factors.
  • They say improving access to healthcare, in particular preventive care, is an important way to reduce the gap.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States had made some significant strides in narrowing the life expectancy gap between white and Black Americans.

That’s according to a new study published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

Researchers from the University of Washington looked at the data from death and census records to estimate life expectancy for Black, white and Hispanic Americans over a three-decade span from 1990 to 2019.

They found that during that time period, life expectancy for Black Americans rose nearly 4 years to slightly more than 75 years. That improvement, however, still lagged behind whites, who had a life expectancy of nearly 79 years.

The researchers also found sometimes large differences between states.

Dr. Gregory Roth, the lead study author and an associate professor of global health at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) as well as an associate professor of medicine-cardiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine, said if you look at the three largest ethnic groups, the disparity in life expectancy across states is noticeably larger.

“Race, ethnicity, and where you live both matter a great deal in determining how long you may live” he told Healthline.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic struck and with it came a staggering number of deaths.

To date, more than 1 million people in the United States have died from COVID-19.

An analysis showed that people of color were twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as their white counterparts.

The latest data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the impact. The life expectancy gap has widened between Black and white Americans. Whites have a life expectancy of 78 years compared to 72 years for Black Americans.

Dr. Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association, says we can break down the whys into about three categories: exposure to the virus, underlying health conditions, and access to care.

He says people of color were more likely to have to go out and work because of the jobs they had.

“If you were a bus driver, worked in a hotel… a quote ‘essential worker’, you were much more likely to be out and about,” Benjamin told Healthline. “For a disease you get by being exposed to other people, you’re much more likely to be exposed to someone who was infected.”

He says underlying chronic conditions such as heart disease, kidney disease, lung disease, hypertension, and obesity in the Black community made it more likely you would get sicker if you got infected.

Then, there were problems with access to testing, vaccines, routine, and preventive healthcare.

Benjamin said it made a difference “If you were someone who worked shifts, you weren’t necessarily sitting in front of a computer all day and able to get one of those precious appointments to get tested and later to get vaccinated”.

“The sites were often in places which were difficult to get to and if you weren’t feeling well, you weren’t going to take two buses and a train and stand in line,” he explained.

Benjamin said those impediments also played a role in getting continuing and preventive care, much of which was delayed during the height of the pandemic. People either couldn’t get appointments or were afraid to go to clinics and hospitals.

Roth said his team did not look at potential interventions, but there are some clear targets to focus on.

“Access to healthcare remains limited in many communities,” he said. “Routine blood pressure and cholesterol screening, and using inexpensive medications to treat those risks would substantially reduce health disparities if that kind of intervention could be made available in every community for every person.”

But Roth says to be even more effective, disparities need to be addressed at an earlier state before those risks have even developed.

“True prevention would focus on social determinants of health, for example, making healthy foods easily available to children and young adults” he added.

Benjamin warns that if we want to regain lost ground, there are no quick fixes.

“The loss of a year of life expectancy is a really big deal and you don’t get it back in a year,” he said. “It’s going to take an enormous effort to reverse that and get those life expectancy years back. It could take years.”

“I’m hopeful because sometimes very bad things happen in life… but they’re so transparent that everybody sees it,” he explained. “The hard work now is going to be getting people to act on what we now know.”

Benjamin said that includes getting better access to healthcare, addressing structural racism, and front-loading actions when new diseases come into communities of color.

“If something happens and we’re going to use telehealth to engage people, we have to remember that last time there were a bunch of communities that didn’t have access to wifi,” he added.

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