October 2, 2023

Examining The Social Factors That Help Black Seniors Thrive In Later Life

By: Jennifer Magdalene

Although the life expectancy of Black Americans has been on an upward trend in recent decades, it continues to lag behind that of white people – Black Americans live to around 71 years old on average, six years less than their white counterparts. However, comparing Black longevity to white longevity is a limited method of data collection, which often fails to identify areas where Black seniors are thriving. To rectify this problem, The Black Progress Index, recently launched by the Brookings Institution in partnership with the NAACP, lets users look at Black life expectancy rates, along with different predictors of longevity, across the country. The interactive dashboard therefore provides refreshing insight into areas where Black seniors are living long and well.

Where are Black seniors thriving?

In both Weld County, Colorado and Manassas Park, Virginia, Black residents have an impressive average life expectancy of 96 years old – the highest among all Black citizens in the nation, and far greater than the average national life expectancy of 76. It’s also worth noting a life expectancy for Black people into the 80s also exists in Montgomery County, Maryland and Collier County, Florida. Black people are also doing well elsewhere in Virginia, with an average life expectancy of 82.7 years found in Loudoun, 82.2 years in Fairfax, and 81.8 years in Prince William.

Positive influential social conditions

Positive social conditions, including, housing, high income, entrepreneurship, and college education, all increase the likelihood of Black people living longer. 45% of Black people in Montgomery County, Maryland, for instance, have at least a bachelor’s degree or higher (in fact, higher education is estimated to increase life expectancy by one year). Montgomery County is also home to plenty of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Black people who attend HBCUs are typically at lower risk for health problems and disability in later life. Currently, 38% of Black people aged 65 and older in the U.S. are diagnosed with at least one disability, compared with 33.5% of all older adults. Mobility aids like wheelchairs, walkers, and rollators are often needed to help older people retain freedom and independence in later life. Thoughtful accessibility measures in commercial parking spaces also play a key role in ensuring seniors can drive anywhere they wish while maintaining safety and comfort.

Predictors of low Black life expectancy

Unsurprisingly, predictors like air pollution and gun violence were found to decrease Black life expectancy across the country. However, a more unexpected predictor of low Black life expectancy turns out to be religious membership. Although it’s not certain why this is, past research has found middle-aged adults who are religious are more likely to be obese than people who are non-religious.

The importance of a nuanced perspective

“When you look at racial disparities by lumping all Black people together, and seeing everybody as the same, you lose the nuanced differences as well as the sense of agency that we have in our lives,” said Dr. Andre Perry, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute. “Even as we struggle to close racial gaps as a race, we still must be aware of the opportunities to make improvements in our lives and in our communities.” Understanding the areas in which Black people are thriving play a key role in this. “In some areas, you’ll see that the Black community has taken civic action to address a problem or organized to increase the minimum wage,” Perry explained. “Others will then begin to say, ‘If they can do it, why not us?’”. Indeed, various efforts are underway in Montgomery County, Maryland, for example, to improve equitable opportunities and take apart the preexisting “architecture of inequality” that works to decrease life expectancy for Black people.

According to Perry, the Black Progress Index is set to be updated annually. The research team is also planning on launching a survey to ask Black people about the elements that are most important in positively impacting their quality of life. “I think that this is going to be one of the go-to sources to understand the conditions of Black America moving forward,” Perry said.

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