Want to hear some good news about minority health disparities for a change? According to a study published in the March 21 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, the long-standing life expectancy gap between black and white Americans is finally beginning to close. In 1993, the average African American could expect to live 70.9 years, compared to 78 years for Caucasians—a disparity of 7.1 years. But by 2003, the gap had narrowed to 5.3 years, with the average life expectancy for blacks rising to 72.7 years.

The study, conducted by researchers from McGill University in Montreal, examined data from the U.S. National Vital Statistics System over a 20-year period (1983-2003). They found that while the black/white life expectancy gap widened considerably between 1983 and 1993, over the next 10 years it shrank—by 25% for black men and 18% for black women. The biggest factors contributing to this progress were declines in deaths from homicide, AIDS and accidental injuries among African American men and fewer deaths from heart disease, diabetes and stroke among black women.

But don’t start celebrating just yet. While the gap is indeed narrowing, it is far from closed. Much more work still needs to be done before the disparity can be eliminated once and for all. “The good news is that the life expectancy gap has declined,” says John Lynch, one of the study’s co-authors. “That should give us some confidence that things can change. The bad news is that the gap remains large—the difference for men is 6.3 years and for women, 4.5 years. But we know what we need to work on.” He believes the U.S. health care system must work harder to improve access and quality of care for African Americans, especially when it comes to heart disease, which has replaced homicide as the number one killer of black men.

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