It is a bitter but basic fact in health research: Black Americans die at higher rates than Whites from most causes, including AIDS, heart disease, cancer and homicide.

     But recent federal data offered some good news. The suicide rate for Black men has declined, making them the only racial group to experience a drop. Infant mortality is down by more than a fifth among Blacks since the late 1990s, double the decline for Whites. Births to teenage mothers, which tend to have higher infant mortality rates, have dropped by 64% since 1995. Blacks are still at a major health disadvantage compared with Whites. But evidence of Black gains has been building and has helped push up the ultimate measure — life expectancy. The gap between Blacks and Whites was 7 years in 1990. By 2014, it had shrunk to 3.4 years, the smallest in history.

     Part of the reason has been the opioid crisis. The crisis has hit harder in White communities, bringing down White life expectancy and narrowing the gap.

     But there also has been real progress for Blacks. The rate of deaths by homicide for Blacks decreased by 40% from 1995 to 2013, according to Andrew Fenelon, a researcher with the National Center for Health Statistics. The death rate from cancer fell by 29% for Blacks.

Closing the Gap

     Life expectancy for Blacks improved in the 1970s as Medicare and Medicaid increased access to health care and helped integrate hospitals after the abolition of Jim Crow laws. Smoking had started to decline and new treatments for heart disease, including blood-pressure medications, drastically improved health for everyone.

     Then came a lost decade. From 1982 to about 1995, Blacks’ progress in life expectancy stalled, dragged down by homicides, AIDS and fallout from the crack epidemic. Life expectancy in 1993 stood at 69.2, down from 69.4 in 1982. There were five years of outright declines during the period, unprecedented in modern times, said Sam Harper, an epidemiologist at McGill University.

     One profound change has been the decline in violence over the past two decades. The cause is still a matter of intense debate. Homicides have decreased for everyone since the early 1990s, but have gone down faster for Blacks. As a result, the Black-White gap in deaths from homicides fell by 40% in the largest metropolitan areas across the country, according to Michael Light, a sociologist at Purdue University.

     “The decline in violence is a major social fact that is really reshaping society and the lived experience of kids growing up — particularly Blacks,” said Robert J. Sampson, a sociology professor at Harvard University who has been studying youth in Chicago since the 1990s.

     But he noted that the improvement has been complicated by the explosive rise in incarceration rates, which has taken a heavy toll on Black families.

     Dr. Harper, who has written extensively on the racial mortality gap, said it was difficult to tell whether any of the improvements were because of specific policies aimed at lifting Blacks’ health. But he said the gains were clear.

     And while for some causes, like AIDS, the percentage drop in the death rate may have been similar for Blacks and Whites, Dr. Harper said, the absolute decline in the number of deaths per 100,000 was larger for Blacks over the past 15 years, because they had started at far higher rates.

     Dr. Otis W. Brawley, the chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, said faster declines in cancer mortality for Blacks were driven largely by substantial drops in deaths from lung cancer.

     “I think it’s something to be celebrated. It’s a very good thing,” Dr. Brawley said. “But we need to be very cautious,” he added, pointing out that over all, Black death rates from cancer were still higher than those of Whites, and that for some cancers, like colon, a disparity has sprung up since the 1980s, possibly a result of screenings and new treatments that were less accessible to Blacks.

     David R. Williams, a professor of African-American studies and public health at Harvard, cautioned that the country still has a long way to go to address the health disadvantages of Blacks. He said the excess in premature deaths among Blacks is the equivalent of a jumbo jet crashing every day.

     “We have had this peculiar indifference to this unprecedented loss of Black lives on a massive scale for a very long time,” he said.

     He added: “When something happens to Whites, it’s news and it’s a crisis that we have to attend to.”

     Researchers do not fully understand why drug overdoses have hit Whites harder than Blacks. (Dr. Fenelon said White rates overtook those of Blacks in 2003.)

     But it is clear that the difference is helping to close the life-expectancy divide. Dr. Harper calculated that faster increases in White overdose deaths accounted for about 15% of the narrowing of the Black-White gap in life expectancy for men from 2003 to 2008.

     Whatever the case, the national hand-wringing can leave a bad taste.

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