One consequence of racial inequalities in the United States is that black Americans die at much higher rates than white Americans. New research by UT Austin’s Debra Umberson and colleagues explores some understudied consequences of this. Umberson’s team finds that black Americans are more likely to lose their parents during childhood than white children. Furthermore, black Americans are more likely to experience the death of multiple close family members by mid-life. Along with the sheer tragedy, in the long run these losses have the potential to damage the health of black Americans. Bereavement following the death of just one family member has shown to have lasting adverse consequences for the health of the individual, with premature deaths having an even larger impact.
Using the National Longitudinal Study of Youth and Health and Retirement Study totaling 42,000 people, the researchers compared non-Hispanic black and non-Hispanic white Americans on their exposure to death of family members and total number of deaths experienced at different ages. The study shows that black Americans were twice as likely as white Americans to experience the death of two or more family members by the age of 30. Black Americans born in the 1980s were three times more likely to lose a mother, more than twice as likely to lose a father, and 20 percent more likely to lose a sibling by age 10. The race gap diminishes slightly at age 70. At that point, whites begin to exceed blacks in experiencing loss. However, black Americans experienced more family member deaths than white Americans overall.
This racial disparity in family member death rates paints a stark picture of black health disadvantages. Death of family members puts strain on other family relationships. This strain often persists throughout a lifetime, thus adding to even more trouble. As Umberson and colleagues emphasize bereavement is a known risk factor for mental and physical health having an even greater impact if it occurs during childhood or early adulthood. The loss-upon-loss quality of this result sets up another reinforcing cycle. Racial inequalities contribute to a high death rate for black Americans. And they add another racial inequality all together; health disadvantages due to the loss of family members.
Next week we will feature an interview with Dr. Umberson about her research.
Megan Peterson is a senior sociology major at Framingham State University and a Council on Contemporary Families Public Affairs and Social Media Intern.