OPEN Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America | 25 Jan 2017
D Umberson, JS Olson, R Crosnoe, H Liu, T Pudrovska and R Donnelly
Long-standing racial differences in US life expectancy suggest that black Americans would be exposed to significantly more family member deaths than white Americans from childhood through adulthood, which, given the health risks posed by grief and bereavement, would add to the disadvantages that they face. We analyze nationally representative US data from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth (n = 7,617) and the Health and Retirement Study (n = 34,757) to estimate racial differences in exposure to the death of family members at different ages, beginning in childhood. Results indicate that blacks are significantly more likely than whites to have experienced the death of a mother, a father, and a sibling from childhood through midlife. From young adulthood through later life, blacks are also more likely than whites to have experienced the death of a child and of a spouse. These results reveal an underappreciated layer of racial inequality in the United States, one that could contribute to the intergenerational transmission of health disadvantage. By calling attention to this heightened vulnerability of black Americans, our findings underscore the need to address the potential impact of more frequent and earlier exposure to family member deaths in the process of cumulative disadvantage.
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