A new study is shedding light on the mortality rate disparity for Black people in the United States — and further illuminating the deadly toll of racial inequities in healthcare.
As NBC News reported, a JAMA study published on Tuesday (May 16) found that the disproportionately high mortality rate for Black Americans accounted for more than 1.63 million excess deaths between 1999 and 2020 relative to white people. Black people are also more likely to die young. Over that 22-year stretch, their higher death rate resulted in more than 80 million cumulative years of life lost.
These staggering figures are due at least in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had a disproportionately devastatingly impact on communities of color. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Black people are 1.6 times more likely to die from COVID than white, non-Hispanic people.
America was actually making progress on closing this racial gap in mortality rates between 1999 and 2011. Unfortunately, that trend began to stall in 2011; once COVID hit the U.S. in 2020, the disparity worsened yet again.
“The study is hugely important for about 1.63 million reasons,” Herman Taylor, an author of the study and research director at Morehouse School of Medicine, told NBC News. “Real lives are being lost. Real families are missing parents and grandparents. Babies and their mothers are dying. We have been screaming this message for decades.”
These are some of the reasons why we’re seeing these disparate mortality rates, according to experts.
As Taylor alluded to, medical researchers and clinicians have sounded the alarm for many years about the dangers Black people face as a result of healthcare inequities.
In the U.S., Black people are less likely to have health insurance than white people. This can create substantial barriers to accessing healthcare. After all, even a routine trip to the doctor can be prohibitively expensive without insurance.
For instance, in the context of breast cancer, Black women die at much higher rates than white women. Although biology may play a role here, this racial health gap is greatly exacerbated by social and economic factors, such as being uninsured or lacking access to healthcare facilities. In fact, it recently prompted the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) to make a major change to its breast cancer screening guidelines.
In order to close these racial health gaps, systemic changes need to happen.
Since these racial health gaps largely stem from systemic inequities, they can only be solved with systemic solutions. That means taking steps to ensure equitable access to healthcare for Black people.
According to the JAMA study, America’s disproportionately high Black mortality rate is driven by elevated rates of heart disease, cancer, and infant mortality in this population. Expanding access to health education and preventative care can help in all three of those scenarios.
As Clyde Yancy, another author of the study and the chief of cardiology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, told NBC News, “We’re talking about the freedom to be healthy.” That shouldn’t be a radical concept by any means.
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