Death rate in city on decline, officials say

October 13, 2006|By Chris Emery | Chris Emery,Sun Reporter

A month after a Harvard study found Baltimore residents had shorter life expectancies than most Americans, city officials released new data showing improvement in the city's public health in recent years.

Baltimore's mortality rate fell by nearly 20 percent since 1999, according to the data released yesterday. During the same period, statewide mortality rates dropped by about 12 percent.

Life expectancy, another measure of health, rose in Baltimore from 69.2 years in 2000 to 71.6 years in 2005. "It's unquestionably movement in the right direction," said Joshua M. Sharfstein, the city's commissioner of health.

He cautioned, however, that the city still lags far behind national averages and needs to address racial disparities in health care and disease prevention. "There is so much further that we need to go," he said.

Although the new statistics, compiled by the state, showed increased life expectancy for blacks and whites, gaps between the races persisted.

In 2005, for example, life expectancy for a white woman was 78.5 years compared with 74.3 for a black woman. The shortest life expectancy was for black men at 64.8, compared with white men at 71.5.

The data were compiled by Vital Statistics Administration of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Sharfstein said interest from the public, the media and city officials after last month's Harvard report prompted him to ask state health officials for updated data.

The Harvard researchers found that in 1999 Baltimore residents had an average life expectancy of 68.6 years, among the lowest in the country. In stark contrast, Montgomery County residents' life expectancy was 81.3 years. "People wanted to know what has happened since then," Sharfstein said.

He cautioned that Maryland officials and the Harvard researchers used different methods to calculate life expectancy, so the numbers are not directly comparable. He guessed, however, that the trends would be the same.

The combination of increased life expectancy and lower mortality rates, he said, suggests that public health has improved somewhat since 1999. He said the two measures are closely related.

The mortality rate is expressed as the number of deaths each year per 100,000 residents, and is age-adjusted to account for differences in population numbers between generations. The mortality rate was 1,380 per 100,000 population in 1999 but dropped to 1,105 by 2005.

Life expectancy is the average number of years a child born in a particular year could expect to live.

"Fewer people are dying," Scharfstein said, "and at the same time there is a an increase in how long they are living."

He was reluctant to speculate on reasons for the change but noted drops in cigarette smoking and AIDS deaths as possible factors.

Dr. Peter Beilenson, the city's health commissioner from 1992 to 2005, had similar thoughts. "In the late '90s, AIDS was the leading killer of young males and females, black and white," he said. "It has become much more of a chronic disease, because it can be treated."

He said needle exchange programs for drug addicts have also helped slow the spread of the disease. Cases of infant deaths, lead poisonings and sexually transmitted diseases have also declined, he said.

"It's very good news," he added. "It shows that the health of the city is getting better."

Like Sharfstein, however, he was concerned by the racial disparities and the notion that the city still lags behind other regions.

"We have more uninsured people than we did five years ago," he added. "The access to health care has not improved."

In their study last month, the Harvard researchers concluded the regional and racial disparities they noted in 1999 statistics were most likely explained by chronic health problems such as diabetes, cardiovascular and lung disease, and heavy drinking and smoking.

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