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THURSDAY, July 18 (HealthDay News) -- Despite a significant increase in life expectancy in recent decades, black Americans still die almost four years earlier than white Americans do, federal health officials reported Thursday.
The disparity is largely due to higher death rates from cancer, diabetes, heart disease, murder and stroke, according to statistics released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Disparities were larger in the past," said report author Ken Kochanek, a CDC statistician. "The increase in life expectancy has been faster for the black population than the white population, so the gap has been getting smaller. It's 3.8 years in 2010. In 1970, it was 7.6 years, so it's decreased by almost half but the disparity is still there."
One expert agreed that the news is mixed.
"The message, though very consistent with similar reports in recent years, holds both optimistic and sobering news for those working to close the gaps in life expectancy by race," said Ellen Meara, an associate professor at The Dartmouth Institute, in New Hampshire.
The rate of improvement in life expectancy for blacks -- 17 percent compared to 10 percent among whites in the same period -- is cause for optimism, she said.
"This demonstrates that relative differences in life expectancy by race can and do narrow over time," Meara noted.
Another expert said education plays a significant role in the racial disparity in life expectancy.
"It's not surprising that heart disease, cancer and homicide account for the majority of the difference, since the first two at least account for the majority of all deaths in the U.S.," said Stuart Jay Olshansky, a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois, in Chicago.
"The next obvious question is why death rates from these causes are higher among blacks," he said.
In a study by Olshansky that was published last August in the journal Health Affairs, his team examined these differences by level of education.
"When this is done, the disparities between the least educated blacks and the most highly educated whites are even larger than the disparities shown here," Olshansky said. "In fact, even among the most educated subgroups of the population, disparities exactly like those shown here persist."
However, another expert said that efforts to reduce the risk factors for heart disease and cancer among blacks would help narrow the gap.
"This report confirms two things we know. One, that black life expectancy lags behind white life expectancy by a considerable margin. Two, that the main reasons for the gap are preventable," said Sam Harper, from the department of epidemiology, biostatistics & occupational health at McGill University in Hamilton, Canada.
"We need to focus our efforts at reducing the major risk factors for heart disease that disproportionately affect black Americans, and making certain that blacks are benefiting from improvements in medical treatments for cancer and heart disease," Harper said. "Redoubling our efforts on these two diseases would go a long way towards reducing the black-white life expectancy gap."
Other highlights of the report include:
Dr. Robert Graham, an internist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, noted that "this disparity is related to access to care for these diseases that disproportionally affect the black community. We have to change the way we provide care to our communities."
In addition, ways need to be found to curb the violence that "is needlessly killing young African Americans," Graham said.
For more on life expectancy, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.