The aging experience of African Americans is quite different from that of whites in the United States. One of the most striking differences is the lower average life expectancy among blacks compared to whites. A 2006 study showed that, while the gap in the life expectancy between the two groups has declined during the past century, there is still a wide gap among both men and women. In 2003, for example, African-American females had a life expectancy of 76.1 years, compared with 80.5 for white women. African-American males' life expectancy was 69 years, compared with 75.3 years for white males. The height of the gap was in 1904 when white women survived 17.9 years longer than black women, and white men 17.8 years more than black men.
Numerous factors contribute to the life-expectancy gap, and these are hotly debated by academics and professionals across health, social services and other fields. One factor that is widely agreed upon as contributing to the gap is the lower average income among African Americans. Higher incomes often mean an ability to afford health insurance and better quality health care, as well as other things that support a healthier lifestyle, such as a better diet. In 2003, African-American households had a median income of approximately $30,000, compared with $48,000 for non-Hispanic white households. Similarly, 24.4 percent of blacks lived below the poverty line, compared with 8.2 percent of non-Hispanic whites.
While a significant number of whites do not have health insurance, an even higher number of African Americans are uninsured. In 2003, 21 percent of blacks under 65 were uninsured, compared with 12.9 percent of whites.
Another factor that contributes to the lower life expectancy is the marriage rate among African Americans. Married people generally have a lower mortality than unmarried people as marriage provides a supporting and caring environment for partners, as well as facilitating social integration. While there are similar marriage rates among both whites and blacks, marriages among black couples are more likely to break up, and black divorcees are less likely to remarry. Some researchers claim this is because of a "marriage squeeze" among African Americans because of higher rates among black men of joblessness, incarceration and mortality.
Research has also shown that senior citizens in the African-American community are less likely than whites to engage in physical activity and are more likely to be obese. These factors are associated with hypertension and diabetes, which are twice as common among blacks and can lead to other health problems and mortality at a younger age. Additionally, while blacks are less likely to smoke than whites, they are less likely to quit if they do smoke.
Aside from their lower life expectancy, African Americans also have a lower quality of life in their later years. As they generally have lower paying jobs than whites, their pension plans and savings are often insufficient to support them in their retirement. This impacts upon the quality of life during their senior years and can result in anxiety and other stress-related health problems. In addition, many elderly African Americans can only afford to live in poor neighborhoods where there are high levels of crime, drug abuse and violence.
However, while African Americans generally have a lower life expectancy and quality of life in their senior years, researchers have found that the family structure in black communities can serve as an immense support. Elderly African Americans are more likely than whites to live in extended family networks, with relatives providing economic, social and health-related assistance, as well as a sense of identity and emotional security. In addition, African Americans often have close ties to a local church, which can offer its elderly congregants financial aid, social visits and subsidized housing.