Longer and shorter lives

March 26, 2007

Thanks to advances against certain diseases that disproportionately affect African-Americans, such as HIV/AIDS, the life-expectancy gap between blacks and whites has narrowed. But there is still a gap, with heart disease as a key factor. Ensuring that more minority men and women have health insurance and sustained access to quality health care is essential to eliminating disparities. And Maryland has shown that targeted community involvement can also make a difference.

From 1993 to 2003, researchers at McGill University in Montreal found that the average life expectancy of blacks in the U.S. increased from 69.2 to 72.7 years, while it rose from 76.3 to 78 years for whites. The difference of 5.3 years is a historic low and two years less than a decade earlier. Researchers attributed the decrease to life-prolonging therapies for people with HIV, reductions in homicides and a lower rate of heart disease among black women.

But despite those improvements, experts say that lagging detection and treatment of cardiovascular diseases among blacks are significant contributors to the continuing life-expectancy gap.

The latest national findings are also reflected in Maryland. The state's Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities reports that from 2001 to 2005, life expectancy increased from 72.2 to 74.3 for blacks and from 78 to 79.1 for whites. But OMHHD researchers point to heart disease in middle to late years and infant mortality, HIV/AIDS and homicides in earlier years as factors in shorter life spans among blacks in the state.

Passage of the cigarette tax bill in the General Assembly would provide more African-Americans with health insurance, enabling them to manage chronic health conditions - including heart and lung disease, diabetes, asthma, obesity and hypertension - with routine medical care.

In addition, officials at OMHHD cite the apparent success of a comprehensive community-based model that links local health departments with churches and other neighborhood groups to provide screenings, tests and information related to cancer. From 2000 to 2005, while the program has been in effect, the difference in black-white cancer mortality rates has decreased by 50.5 percent, while differential rates for heart disease have narrowed by 9 percent. Expanding such comprehensive, targeted programs to cover more diseases could help prolong more lives.

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