Race is a social construct
Race is a social construct. It is not a set of biologically determined categories. However, race has a significant impact on life expectancy.
Race is used to categorize and distinguish groups of people based on physical characteristics such as skin colour, hair texture and facial features. However, visible physical characteristics are not reliable indicators of genetic variation and personality. While there is some genetic variation between different human populations, the vast majority of genetic variations are found within populations rather than between them. In fact, there is often more genetic variation within a single racial or ethnic group than there is between different racial or ethnic groups. Yet, race is a source of social prejudices that negatively affects the life expectancy of minorities. In all world regions, minorities have higher rates of chronic health conditions such as diabetes, heart diseases and cancer. This is because minorities consistently suffer from limited opportunities and limited access to healthcare, which predisposes them to early death. The differences in health outcomes between racial groups are not due to inherent genetic differences. They are the result of historical and ongoing societal factors that have created unequal opportunities and experiences for people with different racial backgrounds. Below are the factors that explain the race disparity in life expectancy.
Native Americans in the United States experience significant health disparities that reduce their life expectancy compared to the general population. Specifically, compared to the general population, Native Americans are 185% more likely to die form liver diseases, 52% more likely to die from COVID-19, 51% more likely to dies from diabetes, 34% more likely to die from a motor vehicle accident, 24% more likely to die from suicide and 7% more likely to die from influenza and pneumonia. Below are some factors that explain those health disparities.
- Historical trauma1: Native Americans have experienced centuries of trauma, including genocide, forced relocation and cultural suppression, which contributes to poor health outcomes and intergenerational trauma.
- Poverty: Native Americans are more likely to live in poverty than the general population, which limits access to healthy food, safe housing and healthcare.
- Discrimination: Native Americans face discrimination and stigma, which impacts access to education, employment and healthcare.
- Limited access to healthcare: Native American communities often have limited access to healthcare, including preventative care, due to geographic isolation, lack of resources and inadequate funding for healthcare services.
Blacks represent the majority of people residing in Africa. Africa is a diverse continent with many different countries and cultures, each with their own unique social determinants of health. Below are social determinants that affect the life expectancy of individuals in African countries. These include:
- Poverty: Many African countries experience high levels of poverty, which leads to limited access to healthy food, clean water, safe housing and healthcare.
- Limited access to healthcare: Some African countries have limited healthcare infrastructure and resources, including healthcare professionals, medical equipment and medications.
- Infectious diseases: Many African countries have high rates of infectious diseases such as malaria, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and neglected tropical diseases.
- Environmental factors: Some African countries are exposed to environmental hazards such as air and water pollution.
- Conflict and violence: Some African countries experience political instability, conflict and violence, which lead to displacement, trauma and poor health outcomes.
- Education: Some African countries have limited access to education. Education Educational attainment is associated with improved health outcomes and life expectancy.
Black people residing in the United States experience significant health disparities that reduce their life expectancy compared to the general population2. Specifically, compared to the general population, Blacks are 102% more likely to die form kidney diseases, 86% more likely to die from diabetes, 68% more likely to dies from septicemia, 64% more likely to die from COVID-19, 40% more likely to die from MVA, 38% more likely to die from CVD, 29% more likely to die from influenza and pneumonia, 23% more likely to die from drug overdose and 13% more likely to dies from cancer. Below are some factors that explain those health disparities.
- Structural racism: Racism and discrimination at the individual, institutional and systemic levels contribute to poorer health outcomes for Black people. This includes disparities in access to quality education, employment, housing and healthcare.
- Poverty: Black people are more likely to live in poverty than the general population, which limits access to healthy food, safe housing and healthcare.
Whites life expectancy is relatively close to the general population. They are not affected negatively by social determinant to the same extent as native Americans and blacks. However, whites are not immune to mental health problems, poverty and discrimination. In fact, whites do have a predisposition for suicide. Specifically, compared to the general population, whites are 12% more likely to die from suicide, 9% more likely to die from a fall, 8% more likely to die from liver diseases, 7% more likely to die from chronic lower respiratory diseases, 6% more likely to die from drug overdose and 4% more likely to die from Alzheimers disease.
Asians do not have predisposition to the most common causes of death compared to the general population. Certain Asian populations actually have longer life expectancy than the general world population. Several factors contribute to longer life expectancy in some Asian populations, including diet, lifestyle factors and genetics. For example, traditional Asian diets tend to be high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and seafood, which are associated with health benefits and longevity.
Life expectancy is influenced by genetics and environmental conditions such as lifestyle choices and access to healthcare. There are significant differences in life expectancy between races but these differences are primarily due to social determinants such as poverty, education and access to healthcare. Inherent biological differences between races has little to do with their respective risk of death from different causes. This is important because generalizations about life expectancy based on race or ethnicity reinforce harmful stereotypes that are at the root of social and health disparities. It is essential to recognize that each person’s lifespan is unique and depends on genetic makeup but more significantly, it hinges on environmental factors that are often influenced by lifestyle choices. That is, factors like income, education, alcohol use, tobacco use, physical activity and sleep, have a much more significant impact on life expectancy than race. Youlldie specifically allows to visualize how race interacts with other factors like gender, world region, income, education, alcohol, tobacco, physical activity, sleep, blood pressure, body mass index and family history to statistically predict life expectancy.
- Gameon JA, Skewes MC. A Systematic Review of Trauma Interventions in Native Communities. Am J Community Psychol. 2020 Mar;65(1-2):223-241. doi: 10.1002/ajcp.12396. Epub 2019 Sep 13. PMID: 31518009; PMCID: PMC7243818. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7243818/
- National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; Health and Medicine Division; Board on Population Health and Public Health Practice; Committee on Community-Based Solutions to Promote Health Equity in the United States; Baciu A, Negussie Y, Geller A, et al., editors. Communities in Action: Pathways to Health Equity. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2017 Jan 11. 2, The State of Health Disparities in the United States. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK425844/