Home / Health / Articles / COVID-19 deaths are just the beginning of discrepancies in health outcomes by race

Data on the pandemic shows that Black and Hispanic Americans experience higher rates of death due to COVID-19 than white Americans in every age group. However, this disparity is not new; government metrics illustrate how health outcomes have long differed by race.

Hispanic people have historically had the highest life expectancy

Life expectancy has long differed by race, although all groups have seen life expectancy increases over the past several decades. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Hispanic people have the longest life expectancy at 82 years, whereas Black people have the lowest at 75 years. White individuals have a life expectancy in the middle: 78.5 years.

Life expectancy by race and ethnicity

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Life expectancy is driven in part by differing causes of death

The top causes of death are generally the same across age groups: heart disease, cancer, and most recently, COVID-19. However, some groups are more likely to die of certain causes than others. For example, among white, Hispanic, Black and Asian groups, white people are most likely to die due to accidents including drug overdoses, one of the reasons for decreasing life expectancy for white Americans in recent years. On the other hand, Black individuals are more likely than all other groups to die of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.

Health risk factors vary by race as well, especially among children

Health disparities are about more than just differing mortality rates. These disparities begin in and are usually most pronounced in childhood. For example, 10.7% of Black Americans overall experience asthma, which is over 2 percentage points higher than rates for white and Hispanic Americans, and over twice that of the rate for Asian Americans. However, 14% of Black children have asthma — twice that of white children and over three times that of Asian children.

Asthma rates by race

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Obesity rates reveal similar trends. While overall obesity rates are higher among adults—as high as 47% for Black and Hispanic Americans—the disparities among childhood obesity rates are much starker. For example, 26% of Hispanic children aged 2-19 are obese, whereas only 14% of white children are. Black children are also more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD—approximately 10.7% of Black children are diagnosed with ADHD, while only 8% of white children and 6.5% of Hispanic children are.

Obesity rates by race

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Several factors may contribute to these trends. One such example could include racial disparities in access to nutritious food. According to data from the Department of Agriculture, 19.1% of Black households and 15.6% of Hispanic households reported experiencing food insecurity in 2019, compared to 7.9% of white households. Other factors may relate to the differing environmental exposures of different racial groups. Additional data, including a study from the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Center for Environmental Assessment, find that Black populations as well as those below the poverty level are more likely to live closer to sources of toxic emissions than the average household, which may have a number of deleterious health effects. The CDC also advises that children of some racial and ethnic groups, such as non-Hispanic African-Americans, are also at higher risk for lead exposure, which has been demonstrated to have negative effects on lifetime health.

Access to healthcare may also play a contributing role in these disparities. Hispanic Americans are significantly less likely to be insured than white Americans, as are Black Americans to a lesser extent. Additional data from the CDC also shows that Black and Hispanic people are less likely than their white peers to have received vaccinations for tetanus and human papillomavirus (HPV); for example, two-thirds of white people surveyed had received vaccination for tetanus, whereas just over half of Black and Hispanic people did. Black and Hispanic Americans under the age of 19 were also less likely to receive an annual flu shot compared to white and Asian Americans.

These data snapshots reinforce the importance of disaggregating data by race and considering measures of health beyond just mortality rates, as many disparities in death rates may be rooted in causes that begin at a young age.

For more data on the demographics of wealth, education, policing, and more, visit the Race in America page.

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Health, United States, 2018
Asthma Surveillance Data
Racial and Ethnic Differences in the Prevalence of Attention-deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Learning Disabilities Among U.S. Children Aged 3–17 Years
Prevalence of Obesity Among Adults and Youth: United States, 2015–2016
Surveillance of Vaccination Coverage Among Adult Populations — United States, 2015