Black Americans do not live as long as white Americans, but a new study shows that the gap in life expectancy is slowly closing.  VOA's David McAlary says the findings explain some of the reasons why.

Life expectancy at birth has been increasing in the United States since at least the late 19th century.  But life expectancy of blacks has consistently been lower than that of whites.  In fact, the gap increased sharply in the 1980s and then subsequently declined, but the causes of these changes have not been investigated.

So Dr. Sam Harper of McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, and colleagues at U.S. schools looked at U.S. government birth and death statistics reported between 1983 and 2003, covering about 46 million deaths, and came to this conclusion.

"Blacks are living longer and catching up to whites in terms of life expectancy," said Mr. Harper.

In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Harper found that the life expectancy gap between black and white men decreased two years, from about 8.5 years in 1993 to about 6.5 years in 2003.  The gap for women improved by one year, from about 5.5 years to 4.5 years.

"We found that reductions in deaths from homicide, HIV and unintentional injuries were a major reason why we saw these declines in both men and women," he said.  "Also among women we found that reductions in heart disease also made a strong contribution to the decline."

The biggest life expectancy improvement was for black males ages 15 to 49.

"This can be related to improvements in violence around crack cocaine markets, increases in the sizes of police forces and improvements in the economy," he noted.  "These things may have had a beneficial effect in terms of young black males living longer."

Harper says further improvements are needed, particularly in lowering murder rates, HIV and heart disease in African-Americans.  He notes that reducing infant mortality is also important, which is no surprise to black Chicago obstetrician Stephanie Cox-Batson.

"Unfortunately we continue to see a large number of women coming in very late for prenatal care and when they present later in care, it is very hard for us to really affect the outcome of that pregnancy," she explained.

But Cox-Batson says she is pleased to hear that the overall gap between black and white life expectancy is closing.

"Of course, I would hope that the disparity continues to narrow, on a personal level, you know, as well as for my patients," she added.

Dr. Harper in Montreal says a pressing priority for U.S. public health should be to continue to reduce the racial life expectancy gap and to improve access and quality of medical care for blacks.