Harvard Study Finds Major US Health Disparities

September 12, 2006 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - A Harvard University health expert has concluded the nation's health disparities are largely driven by Americans' race, income, and home location with significant distinctions between different groups.

In fact, concluded Dr. Christopher Murray of the Harvard School of Public Health in a new research report, millions of the worst-off Americans have life expectancies more often seen in developing countries, the Associated Press reported.

According to the Harvard study, at one end of the life expectancy list are Asian-American women living in Bergen County, New Jersey who lead the nation in longevity – typically reaching their 91st birthdays. At the opposite end are American Indian men in areas of South Dakota. The study found that they pass away around age 58 – three decades sooner.

The study, published on the Harvard Initiative for Global Health Web site, found that Asian-American women can expect to live 13 years longer than low-income black women in the rural South. That spread is as big as the one between women in wealthy Japan and those in poverty-ridden Nicaragua.

Meanwhile, the life-expectancy gap between the longest-living women and inner-city black men is 21 years – similar to the gap between Iceland and Uzbekistan.

Murray ‘s county-by-county comparison of life expectancy shows the problem is far more complex, and that geography plays a crucial role, according to the news report. “Although we share in the US a reasonably common culture … there’s still a lot of variation in how people live their lives,” explained Murray.

‘Eight Americas’

This more precise measure of health disparities will allow federal officials to better target efforts to battle inequalities, Dr. Wayne Giles of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the Associated Press. The Centers helped fund Murray’s work.

Murray analyzed mortality data between 1982 and 2001 by county, race, gender and income. He found some distinct groupings that he named the “eight Americas:”

  • Asian-Americans, average per capita income of $21,566, life expectancy of 84.9 years.
  • Northland low-income rural whites, $17,758, 79 years.
  • Middle America (mostly white), $24,640, 77.9 years.
  • Low income whites in Appalachia, Mississippi Valley, $16,390, 75 years.
  • Western American Indians, $10,029, 72.7 years.
  • Black Middle America, $15,412, 72.9 years.
  • Southern low-income rural blacks, $10,463, 71.2 years.
  • High-risk urban blacks, $14,800, 71.1 years.

Longevity disparities were most pronounced in young and middle-aged adults. A 15-year-old urban black man was 3.8 times as likely to die before the age of 60 as an Asian-American, for example, according to the study.