The University Record, February 13, 1995

Age shrinks gap in health status of elderly African Americans and whites

Age shrinks gap in health status of elderly African Americans and whites

By Bernie DeGroat
News and Information Services 

While elderly white Americans may enjoy better health in general than African Americans, the gap shrinks, and often disappears, as they grow older, according to a U-M study.

"Differentials that favor white Americans in the elderly population have been observed since health and mortality data have been collected," says Rose C. Gibson, a faculty associate in the Institute for Social Research and professor of social work. "However, when the group 65 and over is subdivided, the Black handicap in younger age groups narrows and frequently disappears in older age groups."

Gibson, who notes that prior research has found that African Americans over age 75 live longer than their white counterparts, says that advancing age may play a greater role in the health of whites than that of Blacks.

Using information from the National Archives of Computerized Data on Aging, Gibson found that the Black "disadvantage" on five measures of self-reported health is smaller--and, in some cases, disappears--for the 75-79 age group than for those ages 65-74.

Although more whites (50 percent) than Blacks (41 percent) in the 65-74 age group are satisfied with their health, the opposite is true among those ages 75-79--about 52 percent of African Americans and 44 percent of whites are satisfied with their health, she says.

Further, Gibson adds, while more whites (77 percent) than Blacks (62 percent) in the 65-74 age group say they are in good health, the gap narrows for those ages 75-79, with about 65 percent of both whites and Blacks reporting good health.

About 52 percent of African Americans and 49 percent of whites, ages 65-74, say they are functionally limited, according to the study. However, among those in the 75-79 age group, more whites (60 percent) than Blacks (about 55 percent) report functional limitation.

Moreover, while 43 percent of African Americans and 30 percent of whites, ages 65-74, feel limited in daily activities, the gap narrows among the 75-79 age group--about 52 percent of Blacks and 51 percent of whites feel this way.

Lastly, while the number of African Americans in both age groups reporting one or more chronic conditions is the same (91 percent), the number of whites confronted with at least one chronic condition increases from 82 percent among those ages 65-74 to 87 percent in the 75-79 age group.

"All of these findings suggest that age and health are more strongly related in the white than Black elderly population and health differentials favor whites in younger age groups, but favor Blacks in older age groups," Gibson says.

Possible explanations, she says, are that many young African Americans die early, leaving an older, more select group of survivors; Blacks may be more susceptible to early-onset chronic diseases; and certain risk factors for disease and functioning may be more prevalent in some age-race groups than in others.

In addition to analyzing data on health, Gibson's study compared mortality rates (deaths per 100,000 resident population) for elderly African Americans and whites who die from heart disease, cancer and strokes (among other cerebrovascular diseases).

Using figures from the National Center for Health Statistics, Gibson found that African American men and women have lower mortality rates from these three leading causes of death after age 85 than do white men and women. The lone exception is the death rate of Black men with cancer, which is still higher than the white male rate after age 85.

According to the data, African Americans, ages 65-84, when compared with whites in this age range, are 19 percent more likely to die from heart disease, 23 percent more likely to die from cancer and 50 percent more likely to die from a stroke.

However, white Americans 85 and older are 27 percent more likely to die from heart disease and 22 percent more likely to die from a stroke than are African Americans, she says. The death rate for Blacks with cancer is still 5 percent greater overall, due to a higher rate for African American men in this age group.

Gibson's study was published in the August 1994 issue of Gerontologist.