Life Expectancy Is Up, And Health Inequality Is Down by Alex Tabarrok, Foundation For Economic Education

The Bigger Picture Shows Great News

We have heard a great deal about increases in mortality among white, non-Hispanic, middle-aged Americans (especially women), but to state the case is also to note that this is one group among many. In an excellent new paper, Currie and Schwandt discuss the good news — overall life expectancy is up, and health inequality is down, in some cases dramatically. Here, for example, is life expectancy at birth by gender and year.

Life Expectancy

Life Expectancy

Even more impressive is that life expectancy has increased significantly across all poverty groups (as measured by county poverty levels). In the graph below, for example, the blue triangles indicate life expectancy in 1990 (men on the left, women on the right). Note that as the poverty level of the county increases along the horizontal axis life expectancy falls. The green dots are life expectancy in 2010.

Life Expectancy

Once again, as poverty increases, life expectancy falls. What’s remarkable, however, is how much expectancy increased between 1990 and 2010 in counties of all poverty levels.

The news is good and may get better. Between 1990 and 2010 mortality rates for children ages 0-4 fell especially dramatically and especially so in poor counties. Moreover, since mortality at older ages is often baked in by poor health at younger ages, there is significant opportunity for these gains to persist over time.

The New York Times also reported yesterday on inequality in life expectancy across race. It’s down.

Infant mortality is down by more than a fifth among blacks since the late 1990s, double the decline for whites. Births to teenage mothers, which tend to have higher infant mortality rates, have dropped by 64 percent among blacks since 1995, faster than for whites.

Blacks are still at a major health disadvantage compared with whites. But evidence of black gains has been building and has helped push up the ultimate measure — life expectancy. The gap between blacks and whites was seven years in 1990. By 2014, the most recent year on record, it had shrunk to 3.4 years, the smallest in history, with life expectancy at 75.6 years for blacks and 79 years for whites.

Part of the reason has been bad news for whites, namely the opioid crisis. The crisis, which has dominated headlines — some say unfairly, given racial disparities — has hit harder in white communities, bringing down white life expectancy and narrowing the gap.

But there also has been real progress for blacks. The rate of deaths by homicide for blacks decreased by 40 percent from 1995 to 2013, according to Andrew Fenelon, a researcher with the National Center for Health Statistics, compared with a 28 percent drop for whites. The death rate from cancer fell by 29 percent for blacks over that period, compared with 20 percent for whites.

The Currie and Schwandt paper is also very good on describing how these estimates are produced and some of the data issues with making these estimates. It’s a must read for those interested in these issues.

This post first appeared at Marginal Revolution.