(NEW YORK) — A new study from the medical journal JAMA Network estimates there were 1.63 million excess deaths among Black Americans between 1999 and 2020. “Excess deaths” is an estimate of how many people died above and beyond what is expected, according to the study.
Put another way: An estimated 1.63 million more Black Americans died compared to what would have happened if Black people experienced the same death rate as white Americans in that same time period, the study revealed. Additionally, an estimated 997,673 excess deaths occurred among Black males and 628,464 excess deaths occurred among Black females.
According to the study, among a multitude of causes of death in this minority group, heart disease in both sexes and cancer rates in males were major contributing factors. These findings suggest that prior efforts made to eliminate disparities in death rates have not been successful.
The study also noted that infants and middle-aged adults had the largest excess years of potential lives lost. The years of potential life lost among Black males was 47 million, and 35 million in Black females.
There seemed to be substantial progress from 1999 to early 2010s, but “despite initial progress during the early 2000s, [the study] found persistent excess mortality rates among non-Hispanic Black adults,” César Caraballo, a postdoctoral associate at CORE and lead author of the study, said in prepared remarks.
Despite progress narrowing health disparities in the early 2000s, progress later stalled — and was especially exacerbated by the pandemic, consistent with fears of the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affecting the Black population more than the non-Hispanic white population, according to the study. Early in the pandemic, the death rate abruptly increased and exceeded previous years. In 2020, the number of excess deaths among both Black men and Black women was higher than in previous years, the study showed.
“The abrupt worsening of these disparities in the first year of the pandemic indicates that current efforts to eliminate mortality disparities have been minimally effective and that progress has been fragile,” Caraballo said.
Researchers said both pandemic-specific factors (higher infection exposure, financial instability, food insecurity and financial distress) and social factors (structural racism, systemic bias, barriers to healthcare, higher prevalence of multiple chronic conditions and worse average health status) contributed to the vulnerability in the Black population.
Medical experts say that analyzing the excess death rate should raise awareness of the unfair health burden of Black Americans and spur new policies specifically designed to ease this glaring disparity.
Ifesinachi Nnaji, MD, is a resident physician in family medicine at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital and a member of the ABC News Medical Unit.
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