Premature deaths cost Black Americans millions of life years

Disparities in life expectancy cost Black Americans more than 80 million years of potential life over two decades, new research finds. 

Published May 16 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the study compared premature deaths among Black and white Americans with typical U.S. life expectancy. From 1999 to2020, researchers found 1.63 million excess deaths among the Black population when compared to the white population.

As of 2021, the overall life expectancy for white Americans was 76.4 years, and for Black Americans, 70.8 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

While the U.S. had been making progress toward closing the life expectancy gap between Black and white Americans in the early 2000s, the fissure widened with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the Yale University-led research team noted. 

The biggest gap in years of life lost between Black and white Americans occurred during the first year of life, a period in which   white children in the U.S. are more likely to survive. As of 2019, Black babies had double the risk of dying during their first year of life compared to   white babies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Heat waves sped up spread of COVID-19

More than 69% of COVID-19 cases that occurred around the globe in the summer of 2022 could have been avoided if there had been no heat waves, a new study concludes. 

Researchers at Lanzhou University examined COVID-19 cases in Africa, the U.S., Asia and other regions with heat waves, finding that as temperatures increased, so did cases of the disease. As southwestern Europe experienced its warmest temperature to date in July 2022, COVID-19 cases surged by more than 181% in Campagna, Italy, and by more than 114% in France. Tunisia and Ethiopia had an almost 300% increase in cases during summer heat waves there, according to the study, which was published in Environmental Research.

Without the impact of a heat wave, Italy would have experienced about 1.6 million cases of COVID-19 in summer 2022, versus the 4.4 million actual reported cases, the researchers said.

As people are often advised to leave their homes and go to cooler places during heat waves and seek medical care if sickened by heat, human behavior may have played a role in the increases. For example, data on population movement showed an 89% increase in people shopping indoors in crowded places during heat waves, which may have enabled transmission.

Cleaning solvent linked to increased Parkinson’s risk

Trichloroethylene, a cleaning solvent used in industrial and consumer products, can increase risks for Parkinson’s disease, a May 15 study in JAMA Neurology finds.

Researchers examined data on Parkinson’s diagnoses among U.S. military service members who were stationed at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina from 1975-1985, when the water supply was contaminated by the chemical, also known as TCE. Compared to service members stationed at a California base with uncontaminated water, the Camp Lejeune service members had a 70% higher risk of Parkinson’s, the study found.

TCE is used in metal degreasers, stain removers and dry cleaning. Two U.S. states, Minnesota and New York, have banned most uses of TCE.

At Camp Lejeune, drinking water wells were contaminated by sources such as industrial spills, leaking underground storage tanks and waste disposal sites. More than 1 million people who lived and worked at the base   may have been exposed to the contaminated water, which has also been linked to cancer.

Inequities in health, education pose high cost burden for nation

Health and educational inequities between people of color and white residents in the U.S. not only worsen illness and shorten lives. They also cost the nation hundreds of billions of dollars annually, new research in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds.

In 2018, the cost of health inequities for U.S. minority populations was as high as $451 billion, according to the May 16 study, which was commissioned by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. On the education side, the cost of inequities for adults without a four-year college degree — including Americans of all races and ethnicities — was even higher, at as much as $978 billion. 

More than of two-thirds of the costs were attributed to premature deaths while the remainder was linked to excess medical care and lost labor productivity, the study said.

Most of the “unacceptably high” cost from health inequities was credited to the overall lower health status of the U.S. Black population, the researchers said. But both the American Indian and Alaska Native population and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander population carried   disproportionate shares of the burden.

For educational inequities, people who had less than a high school diploma made up 9% of the population but accounted for 26% of the costs.

Rural diabetes patients struggle with treatment goals

People with diabetes who live in rural areas are less likely to meet health treatment goals than their urban counterparts, even when patients are in the same health system, a new study shows.

Published May 22 in the Annals of Family Medicine, the research found that urban diabetes patients were more likely to reach targets for blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol than rural diabetes patients. Urban patients were also more likely to take their prescribed antiplatelet medications and to abstain from tobacco use. The five goals, known as the “D5” metric, are considered a top standard for diabetes management.

The gap between rural and urban residents occurred despite the fact that all patients were being treated within the same health system — the Mayo Clinic, based in Rochester, Minnesota. Study researchers said the lower number of outpatient health visits among rural residents, who often have to travel longer distances to appointments than urban patients, may play a role.

Suicides among Black, Native American youth increase

Suicide rates for U.S. youth and young adults rose during the COVID-19 pandemic — and especially among Black and American Indian and Alaska Native populations.

A recent study in Pediatrics found that suicide rates among people ages 5 to 24 were higher than expected starting four months into the pandemic, which began March 2020. Higher-than-expected deaths were more common among children ages 5-12 and young adults ages 18-24. Gun-related suicide deaths were also higher than expected.

While youth of all races and ethnicities were affected, Black and American Indian and Alaska Native youth had higher suicide rates, particularly among males and young adults ages 18-24. For Black youth, researchers suggested that stress and societal unrest following the police murder of Minneapolis resident George Floyd in May 2020 may have been contributed to adverse mental health. For American Indian and Alaska Native youth, social, cultural and economic disruption during the pandemic may have played a role, the study said.

The researchers called for tailored, culturally appropriate prevention outreach for youth and young adults at high risk for suicide. 

The Watch is written by Michele Late, who has more than two decades of experience as a public-health journalist.