, Volume 51, Issue 6, pp 2025–2045 | Cite as

Why Lifespans Are More Variable Among Blacks Than Among Whites in the United States

  • Glenn FirebaughEmail author
  • Francesco Acciai
  • Aggie J. Noah
  • Christopher Prather
  • Claudia Nau


Lifespans are both shorter and more variable for blacks than for whites in the United States. Because their lifespans are more variable, there is greater inequality in length of life—and thus greater uncertainty about the future—among blacks. This study is the first to decompose the black-white difference in lifespan variability in America. Are lifespans more variable for blacks because they are more likely to die of causes that disproportionately strike the young and middle-aged, or because age at death varies more for blacks than for whites among those who succumb to the same cause? We find that it is primarily the latter. For almost all causes of death, age at death is more variable for blacks than it is for whites, especially among women. Although some youthful causes of death, such as homicide and HIV/AIDS, contribute to the black-white disparity in variance, those contributions are largely offset by the higher rates of suicide and drug poisoning deaths for whites. As a result, differences in the causes of death for blacks and whites account, on net, for only about one-eighth of the difference in lifespan variance.


Lifespan variability Health disparities Life expectancy Adult mortality Cause of death 



This research was supported by funding from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to the Population Research Institute at The Pennsylvania State University for Population Research Infrastructure (R24HD041025), and as well as from a Family Demography Training grant (T-32HD007514). We thank Jenny Van Hook for her comments and encouragement.

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Copyright information

© Population Association of America 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Glenn Firebaugh
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
    Email author
  • Francesco Acciai
    • 2
    • 3
  • Aggie J. Noah
    • 2
    • 3
  • Christopher Prather
    • 2
    • 3
  • Claudia Nau
    • 4
  1. 1.University ParkUSA
  2. 2.Department of Sociology and CriminologyThe Pennsylvania State UniversityUniversity ParkUSA
  3. 3.The Population Research InstituteThe Pennsylvania State UniversityUniversity ParkUSA
  4. 4.The Johns Hopkins Global Center for Childhood Obesity, Bloomberg School of Public HealthBaltimoreUSA

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