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Life expectancy: How can we address uneven declines?
- By Numa Perez, MD, Contributor, and
- Peter T. Masiakos, MS, MD, FACS, FAAP, Contributor
Depending on race and ethnicity, life expectancy for a child born in 2019 was approximately 75 (non-Hispanic Black), 79 (non-Hispanic White), or 82 years (Hispanic). The higher life expectancy of Hispanic people compared to others in the US may come as a surprise to some.
Known as the "Hispanic paradox," this phenomenon was first noted in the 1980s, and its legitimacy has been debated ever since. Among many explanations proposed are the "healthy immigrant" (people who migrate to the US are healthier than those who stay in their native countries) and the "salmon bias" (less healthy US immigrants are more likely to return to their countries of origin) hypotheses. Other experts note that Hispanic communities have lower rates of smoking and greater levels of social cohesion, which may certainly contribute to their presumed higher life expectancy. In the end, this difference remains poorly understood, and is further complicated by research noting that US-born Hispanic individuals may have lower life expectancy compared to their foreign-born counterparts.
Alarming changes in life expectancy
During the pandemic, life expectancy slipped backward. When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shared the most recent estimates (note: automatic download), alarming changes highlighted the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had on communities of color.
Between 2019 and 2020:
- Life expectancy dropped more sharply among Hispanic and Black populations compared to their White peers: by 3 years, 2.9 years, and 1.2 years, respectively.
- COVID-19 was directly responsible for much of this disproportionate impact among Hispanic and Black populations: 90% and 60% of the observed decrease in life expectancy, respectively, according to the CDC.
In fact, the gap in life expectancy between Black and White populations has widened from 4.1 to 5.8 years. That’s the largest gap since 1998. And the advantage in life expectancy previously held by Hispanic populations over their White counterparts decreased from 3 to 1.2 years.
Put simply, the COVID-19 pandemic lowered life expectancy for everyone in the US, but this impact was felt most by communities of color.
Many reasons for greater vulnerability to COVID-19
Many factors contributed to this uneven drop in life expectancy. But these remarkable numbers remind us of the vulnerability of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) in the US, the result of longstanding unequal access to health care and resources needed to achieve upward economic mobility. Many BIPOC populations in the US live on the brink of collapse. With little health or financial reserves, these communities are increasingly vulnerable to sudden events, like the financial collapse of the early 2000s or a global pandemic.
Racism functions largely through structural barriers that advantage some groups and disadvantage others. Rather than causing new disparities, the COVID-19 pandemic simply unmasked chronic failings in our social policies and healthcare delivery for our BIPOC communities. In 2021, the CDC acknowledged this and declared racism a public health threat that harms the health and well-being of BIPOC populations.
Longstanding systemic failings lead to poor overall health
Abnormally high and sustained exposure to stress during pregnancy and early childhood leads to sustained release of inflammatory and stress-related hormones such as cortisol, which results in toxic levels of chronic stress. Racism causes chronic stress, which detrimentally affects the development and well-being of BIPOC children. Moreover, many BIPOC children have less overall opportunity to thrive. They live in neighborhoods plagued by pervasive poverty caused by longstanding discriminatory policies such as redlining and residential segregation. These factors compound, ultimately resulting in higher levels of cardiovascular disease, mental illness, and risky health behaviors. Known as weathering, this contributes to both decreased lifespan and healthspan (the period of a life during which a person is in good health).
The health and well-being of children and adults in the US are tied to social determinants of health that disproportionately harm BIPOC communities. Examples include a lack of financial and food stability or access to high quality education, higher rates of no health insurance and underinsurance, and lower health care literacy. Pervasive bias and discriminatory policies are deeply embedded into our healthcare delivery infrastructure.
So, the results of the CDC report should come as no surprise: a population chronically deprived of accessible preventive services should be expected to fare poorly during a pandemic.
Moving forward: What changes could help?
We can all raise our voices to persuade and support the efforts of government officials at every level, and healthcare leaders, to address immediate disparities related to the ongoing pandemic and the chronic flaws that leave BIPOC communities increasingly vulnerable. Below are several measures that could get our system moving in the right direction.
Regular citizens can:
- Vote in all elections — especially local ones. Local elected officials, such as a city mayor, town manager, city council members, and county sheriff, can affect the lives of citizens even more personally than state or federal officials. Local news media and websites may have information on their policy views and track records to help you choose candidates.
- Be wary of fake news promoted on social media. Social media places a wealth of information at our fingertips, but it also offers ways to spread false information that can greatly affect our decisions. Try to maintain a healthy level of skepticism. Check information with trusted sources. These common-sense tips can help keep you from falling victim to fake news.
- Support local organizations. Local nonprofits and community organizations play a major role in helping to address health disparities affecting BIPOC communities. If you’re financially able, consider donating to local nonprofits, food banks, and community organizations so that they can keep helping in times of need.
Policy makers and government leaders should:
- Eliminate historically racist and discriminatory policies. Discriminatory practices like gerrymandering contribute to ongoing disempowerment, residential segregation, and pervasive poverty of BIPOC populations, leaving them in destitute circumstances without a voice.
- Make universal healthcare happen. Ensure universal health insurance is achieved, whether via a public option, single payer, or a host of other alternatives. Americans deserve equitable access to quality healthcare, especially preventive care.
- Invest in social support services. The powerful effects of government investments in universal, quality public services such as health care, education, and childcare are evident in the quality of life enjoyed by citizens of Scandinavian and Northern European countries. Americans deserve that same quality of life, and there is no excuse for the richest country in the word to fail in providing it to them.
Editor’s note: At the request of Dr. Perez, terms used to describe all races and/or ethnicities are capitalized in this post, to reflect his view of identity and racial equity.
About the Authors
Numa Perez, MD, Contributor
Peter T. Masiakos, MS, MD, FACS, FAAP, Contributor
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles.
No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
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