Higher death rates from cancer and heart disease could explain a lot of the difference in life expectancy between blacks and whites, according to an analysis released today.
The National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a Data Brief looking at life expectancy in 2010 and whether causes of death influenced the differences between blacks and whites and men and women.
Overall, life expectancy had increased for all since 1970, with blacks gaining 17 percent versus 10 percent for whites. But the average life expectancy was still longer for whites, at 78.9 years compared with 75.1 years for blacks, although that gap of 3.8 years had narrowed considerably from the 7.6-year gap 40 years ago.
Major causes of death appear to have a large influence on that gap. The higher death rate for blacks from heart disease accounts for more than one year of the difference and cancer accounts for nearly half. The higher death rate from heart disease could be attributed to a lower utilization of health care services early on, said Dr. Ray Johnson, a cardiologist with University Cardiology Associates.
“So things don’t get screened for until they are a problem,” he said. “I would guess that once a problem occurs that blacks and whites come to the ER in equal numbers with a complaint. Once they get into the system, we’re colorblind. Once they get into the system, everyone is taken care of equally.”
It has been long known that blacks have higher death rates from breast and colon cancer. In Georgia, death rates from prostate cancer are three times higher for blacks than whites, said Dr. Samir N. Khleif, the director of the Georgia Regents University Cancer Center.
That again might be because of lack of access to care but could also be attributed to the cancers themselves. Blacks are more likely to get earlier and more aggressive forms of cancer than whites.
For instance, the rate of “triple negative” breast cancer, cancers that lack any of the receptors for which there are targeted treatments, is higher in blacks than in whites and the prognosis for those cancers is much worse because of the lack of targeted therapies, Khleif said.
“So biology might be playing a part, low access might be playing a part and response to therapy might be playing a part,” he said.
Triple-negative breast cancer is a focus of the GRU Cancer Center and getting more blacks into clinical trials is also an emphasis, Khleif said.
“The more that we include minorities and African-Americans in clinical trials, and the more they participate, then that gives us a much wider understanding of the disease behavior and more importantly how it reacts and responds to therapy,” he said. “That by itself will teach us a lot and, yes, will shrink that gap” in mortality.