YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Fighting the odds against black-white longevity gap

September 11, 2007|Sandy Banks

We've got big plans for retirement. We'll buy a boat and finally get that beachfront home -- in Costa Rica, if not Malibu. We'll dust off our passports and travel the world. We'll enjoy days chasing the grandkids around and spend romantic nights at home -- alone.

But now I find that the man I plan to spend my twilight years with has only about four years of post-retirement leisure time coming. Then he'll croak.

That's the prediction from yet another sobering study about the mortality gap between races in California.

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, a black man here can expect to live an average of 68.6 years. That's seven years less than the average white man, nine years less than a Latino, and 12 fewer years than his Asian American counterpart.

The longevity gap has been a fact of life since researchers began tabulating mortality more than a hundred years ago. Then, a white man born in 1900 could expect to live to 47. Black men died on average 14 years earlier, at 33.

This new study -- "Death in the Golden State: Why Do Some Californians Live Longer?" -- tries to parse the causes, but its jumble of statistics leads to the same tired conclusions:

Too many young black men die violently, dragging the average life span down. Blacks suffer more from heart attacks, cancer and strokes and are more likely to die from them. Unhealthy lifestyle choices -- smoking, poor diets, lack of exercise -- take more of a toll on blacks. Poverty limits their healthcare options.

But does that mean that upscale black men who avoid getting shot, watch what they eat and get regular checkups are home free? By no means.

Studies show that even in cases where health behaviors are similar, where medical care is available, and income and education are at the same level as whites, black men are more likely to get sick and die than anyone else. Black women fare only a little better.

Although women of every race tend to outlive their men, I can, according to the charts, expect to live only to 75. My friend Kimberly will have five additional years to enjoy, because she's white.

There's much discourse about possible reasons for the black mortality rate, ranging from genetic differences to the stress of living with discrimination.

The discrepancy troubles me, but I dare not worry about it. Stress is, after all, on the long list of factors that can shorten a life.

I expected the mortality report to resonate with friends. It didn't. Ho-hum to the death gap, they said. So I decided to check with a man who's already outlived the prognosticators.

At 74, James Houston isn't spending much time contemplating his mortality. He's already outlived many of his friends and confounded the actuaries. And it's not because he's done all the right things.

"I'm afraid I'm one of those black men who doesn't go to the doctor," said the Palmdale resident. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it, I say."

A self-described couch potato, the retired baker hadn't seen a doctor in 35 years -- not since he had knee surgery in 1972 for an old sports injury.

He finally submitted to a checkup at his daughters' urging last spring and found that he had a "touch of diabetes" and slightly high blood pressure, "but my kidneys, my liver, my prostate. . . all that's fine."

That's a pretty good outcome for a black man whose mother died when he was 3 years old, who grew up in the South under segregation and raised 11 children in Los Angeles.

Now, he admits, he's "way overweight," but that's not because he's black, but because he's been too depressed to get out much in the last 10 years, since his wife died.

She was a nurse who got regular checkups, but died of pancreatic cancer that doctors missed for months because they thought her back pain was caused by arthritis.

It's no wonder Houston doesn't put much faith in mortality charts or regular forays to a doctor's office.

"My father was in his 90s when he died," he said. "I've got folks on my mother's side living and they're almost 100."

Statistics are valuable for researchers and can point our way to good public policy. But our own individual expectations of mortality are drawn as much from familial experience as numbers on an actuarial table.

Still, it is sobering to me to look at the graphs accompanying the mortality report and see the stark reality of those short, black lines that represent me, my brother, my daughters, and the man I love, lagging behind every other group.

Aging baby boomers are accustomed to beating the clock, outsmarting the calendar, holding off the ravages of time. We scarf down blueberries because they're considered superfoods and learn to love broccoli because it might save us from breast cancer. We lift weights for bone and muscle strength and power-walk for cardio health. We pray, we yoga, we strive for the elusive eight hours of sleep.

Yet, everywhere we look, someone's mocking the odds.

I'm the daughter of a woman who cooked healthy food, got regular checkups and did scissor kicks in the living room with her generation's TV exercise guru, Paige Palmer. She died of cancer at 53 -- one year older than I am right now. I'm the widow of a man who looked like the picture of health, until he dropped dead at 45.

So I call my doctor about every ache and pain. I exercise, cook without salt and swallow a handful of vitamins each morning. I can't pass a drugstore blood pressure machine without strapping the cuff on my arm.

And I'm planning retirement with a man who smokes, gets by on four hours of sleep, has beer and potato chips for breakfast -- and was told by the doctor he has a health profile of a man 20 years younger.

I'm hoping we'll both beat the odds.


I'm trying to ignore the numbers and concentrate on staying well. What are you doing to swing the odds in your favor when it comes to longevity? Tell us at

Los Angeles Times Articles