WASHINGTON -- Life expectancy for black people in the United States has dropped substantially, continuing a four-year decline, federal health experts said yesterday.
The drop was sharper than the one in the previous year, and it was large enough that it helped reduce the overall life expectancy for Americans, the National Center for Health Statistics said.
The new data gave the life expectancy for babies born in 1988, the latest year for which figures have been analyzed.
The figures also showed a further widening in the gap between the life expectancy for whites and blacks, a trend that federal officials and health experts described as alarming.
From the time record-keeping began at the turn of the century, life expectancy has generally improved for both white people and black people.
In 1900, a white infant at birth could expect to live 47.6 years and a non-white infant could expect to live about 33 years. Until 1970, the data covered whites and "other," a category in which more than 90 percent of the people were black.
By 1984, the figure was 75.3 years for whites and 69.7 years for blacks. But during the next two years, for the first time in the record keeping, the tight linkage between the two races was broken.
Dr. Harry Rosenberg, chief of the mortality statistics branch at the federal center, said the growing gap between the life expectancy of black people and white people was "serious and discouraging."
Dr. Reed V. Tuckson, senior vice president for the March of Dimes, called it "alarming" and "unconscionable" because the causes of the gap are known and can be affected directly by health policy.
In the statistics reported yesterday, blacks' life expectancy fell to 69.2 years in 1988 from 69.4 years in 1987. Life expectancy for whites in 1988 was 75.6 years, unchanged from the previous year.
Because of the decline in the black rate, overall life expectancy dropped from 75 years in 1987 to 74.9 years in 1988.
For black men, life expectancy dropped from 65.2 years to 64.9 from 1987 to 1988; for black women, the expectancy dropped from 73.6 years to 73.4. For white men, life expectancy rose from 72.2 in 1987 to 72.3 in 1988; for white women, the numbers were the same, 78.9, in both years.
One major factor in life expectancy is the number of babies who die in their first year. Improvements in these infant mortality figures reported yesterday also continued to slow, the government reported, improving only 1 percent between 1987 and 1988, compared to improvements of more than 5 percent per year in the late 1970s.
The rate was 10 infant deaths per 1,000 live births in 1988, down from 10.1 per 1,000 the previous year.
Behind the discouraging picture, health experts said, was a complex of issues that have a major factor in common: They were preventable, either by more cautious behavior or by better access to health care.
For example, large increases occurred among blacks in the number of homicides, deaths from motor vehicle accidents and deaths from AIDS in the latest two years.
[Thousands of impoverished blacks die in the prime of life from illnesses that could be cured or treated by routine medical care, according to a study in the International Journal of Epidemiology, the Associated Press reported.
[The study examined the number of Americans between the ages of 15 and 54 who died between 1980 and 1986 from a dozen disorders that normally are not lethal if treated early.
[During that period, there were 121,560 premature deaths -- almost 80 percent of them among blacks -- related to the 12 ailments, the study said.
Among the illnesses examined were appendicitis, pneumonia, gall bladder infection, hypertensive heart disease, asthma and cervical cancer. Also included were tuberculosis, Hodgkin's disease, rheumatic heart disease, acute respiratory disease, influenza and hernia.
["If detected early and quality treatment is provided, nobody should be dying of these things," said Dr. Eugene Schwartz, an executive in the District of Columbia commission of public health and a co-author of the study. "Either they [patients] are not seeking the care, or they are being blocked from the care."]