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CDC Finds Life Expectancy For White Women Has Declined


The life expectancy of white women has declined by about a month, and black man are living about a half-a-year longer. That's the headline out of a new report today from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And NPR's Alison Kodjak reports the numbers are a simple take on much more complex health and economic issues.

ALISON KODJAK, BYLINE: The report is just a few pages long with some bar graphs and numbers, but behind that data is a complex picture of economic inequality and even despair. The first piece - the life expectancy of white women fell by about one month. It's the first decline in life expectancy for white women since the agency started keeping records almost a hundred years ago. Elizabeth Arias wrote the report and was troubled, so she looked deeper.

ELIZABETH ARIAS: The increases in causes of death that affected this change negatively were unintentional injuries, suicide and chronic liver disease.

KODJAK: Those unintentional injuries are basically drug overdoses. And chronic liver disease comes with alcoholism. The numbers echoed the findings of a major study out of Princeton last fall that showed more and more white people are dying in middle age of the same causes. Anne Case, an economist and lead author of that earlier study, calls them deaths of despair.

ANNE CASE: Well, it looks like people are killing themselves either quickly or slowly. Quickly is either suicide, drug overdose, or slowly is with alcohol-related diseases.

KODJAK: Case says her research shows that those deaths are concentrated among white people with less education - high school dropouts and people who never went to college. She suspects the reasons are tied to their diminished economic prospects.

CASE: It's possible that working-class whites lost the narrative of their lives, that they - they, with a high school degree, could get a job with on-the-job training, with benefits. They could see the possibility that their children's lives would be richer than their own.

KODJAK: And expectations may be the key difference between white women, whose life expectancy fell in the CDC study, and black men, whose rose by almost half-a-year.

DAVID WILLIAMS: For African-Americans, I mean, they have been dealing with economic challenges. It's not that things are great for African-Americans, but we deal with economic challenges all the time.

KODJAK: That's David Williams, a sociologist at Harvard who has studied the impact of race and income on health.

WILLIAMS: What's new is, for many whites who are not now experiencing the economic well-being that they were raised to believe that they would have, it is challenging, and it is very difficult. And there are emotional consequences that manifest themselves in physical illness.

KODJAK: Suicides and other so-called deaths of despair are on the decline among black men and women. Still, Williams stresses that, even if black men's outlook continues to improve at today's fast clip, it will take two decades for them to catch up with white women.

WILLIAMS: It's important to realize that, although the life expectancy is declining for white women, that white women, nonetheless, are still living almost 10 years longer than African-American men. So there still is a large racial gap in health.

KODJAK: And that gap is even wider with Hispanic men and women. The CDC report shows they live longer than everyone else. Alison Kodjak, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alison Fitzgerald Kodjak is a health policy correspondent on NPR's Science Desk.