The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 7, 2017

Has the black-white disparity in death rates for older adults really disappeared?

A just-released report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows some good news: black death rates and white death rates decreased overall from 1999 to 2015. Furthermore, the main figure suggests that for people ages 65 and older, the historical black-white disparity in death rates has disappeared.

But the real story on mortality trends, including disparities by race, is much more nuanced. As we show below, what appears to be little or no difference in black-white mortality for people ages 65 and older in 2015 is actually three differences that are not apparent when looking at the larger picture.

1.       When comparing people of the same sex and age, blacks continue to have higher death rates than whites.

2.       Among adults ages 65 and older, the average age of blacks is lower than the average age of whites (meaning within this age group, blacks are younger than whites).

3.       More black people ages 65 and older are women, compared with whites in this age group.

Here is the original CDC figure (we added the red circle):

figure from CDC report

By 2015, the death rate of blacks ages 65 and older was no longer higher than the death rate of whites in the same age group and even appear to be a bit lower. But these results combine the death rates of all people ages 65 and older and of men and women.  

When we look at death rates separately by exact age and by sex, black-white differences in mortality are again apparent. At almost every age, black women still have a higher death rate than white women, and black men have a higher death rate than white men.

Death rates of black and white women in 2015

Death rates of black and white men in 2015

Why were these differences by race not apparent in the CDC figure? Because for adults ages 65 and older, blacks and whites looked very different in 2015. The average age of blacks was 73.7 compared with 74.6 for whites. Also, a higher share of blacks ages 65 and older were women: 61 percent compared with 57 percent for whites. Because younger people have lower death rates than older people and women have lower death rates than men, comparing a younger and more female population of blacks with an older and more male population of whites offsets the underlying race differences in death rates.

When comparing people of the same sex and age, blacks continue to have higher death rates than whites. The CDC report contains much to celebrate, but we should not overstate the progress in reducing disparities by race. We still have a long way to go.

Illustration by Roy Scott/Getty Images.

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