A new study published last month in the BMJ, one of the oldest peer-reviewed medical journals in the world, shows that the average life expectancy in the United States dropped sharply between 2018 and 2020.

In that short time span, the average American’s life expectancy was cut by nearly two years, to roughly 77 — nearly nine times the average decrease that 16 other “high income democracies” experienced during the same time. 

The study, which utilized data from the National Center for Health Statistics and the Human Mortality Database, also shows that the gap between the U.S. and other rich nations widened to nearly five years, meaning the average lifespan of Americans is now nearly a half-decade shorter than the average lifespan in similarly high-income democracies like the United Kingdom, Spain and France. 

But if the life-expectancy gap between the U.S. and the rest of the wealthy world is wide, then the gap between demographic groups within the U.S. is a chasm. 

As Oak Park physician David Ansell explained in a 2017 Wednesday Journal article that was updated in February, life expectancy in Oak Park and River Forest is 83 years, but in Austin, life expectancy plummets to under 72. Ansell calls this racial disparity in life expectancy the “death gap.” 

A new paperback edition of Ansell’s book, The Death Gap: How Inequality Kills, originally published in 2017, was released in June and features a foreword by Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot. That month, Lightfoot visited North Lawndale, where she shed light on the “death gap” between the city’s haves and have-nots, and declared racism a public health crisis. 

But what if the “death gap” isn’t just between the U.S. and the rest of the wealthy world or between Austin and Oak Park? 

The BMJ study showed a sharp dip in average life expectancy in the U.S. from 2018 to 2020, and a particularly pronounced dip in average life expectancy among Blacks and Hispanics. 

“Life expectancy in the U.S. decreased disproportionately among racial and ethnic minority groups between 2018 and 2020, declining by 3.88, 3.25, and 1.36 years in Hispanic, non-Hispanic Black, and non-Hispanic White populations, respectively,” the authors of the study note. 

“In Hispanic and non-Hispanic Black populations, reductions in life expectancy were 18 and 15 times the average in peer countries, respectively. Progress since 2010 in reducing the gap in life expectancy in the U.S. between Black and White people was erased in 2018-20; life expectancy in Black men reached its lowest level since 1998 (67.73 years), and the longstanding Hispanic life expectancy advantage almost disappeared.” 

Nationally, Blacks died from COVID-19 at 1.4 times the rate of whites, according to an analysis by the Covid Racial Tracker. 

The racial inequity is also local. The medical examiner’s online database of COVID-19-related deaths shows that of the 62 COVID-19 deaths of Oak Park residents reported to the medical examiner since March 2020, 28 of them (45%) were Blacks (who make up about 18% of the village’s population).

Similarly, local studies jibe with the abundance of research showing a marked increase nationwide in what economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton termed “deaths of despair.” 

Consumed by the stress of unemployment and/or underemployment, the breakdown of family units and other social ills, Americans — especially whites without college degrees — have increasingly turned to alcohol, drugs and suicide as palliatives. And a stressful pandemic only compounds those problems that lead to “deaths of despair.”

A Cook County Department of Public Health report released in February showed that, from 2016 to 2020, Oak Park had among the highest rates of acute opioid exposure-overdose in suburban Cook County, according to an article I wrote in March.

“The report’s other key findings included the ‘sharp increase in opioid overdose mortality rates’ among middle-aged Black men, ages 35 to 64, in suburban Cook County,” I wrote back then. 

“This increase mirrors national trends also showing a marked rise beginning in 2016,” the report explained. “Hospital and mortality rates were more than two times lower among Hispanic/Latinx residents compared to Black/African-American and white non-Hispanic residents” in Cook County’s suburbs. 

Thanks to the hard work of people like Dr. Ansell, we know more about the life expectancy gap between Chicago’s West and South sides and its much wealthier and whiter neighborhoods like the Loop and suburbs like Oak Park. 

But given this local data, I wonder whether we should also be looking at “death gaps” within suburbs. 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

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