From 2019 to 2020, U.S. life expectancy decreased by 1.5 years, the largest one-year drop since World War II. While much of this decline was tied to the pandemic, CDC reports show that declines in life expectancy were not evenly distributed across the population. For example, life expectancy for Hispanic males in the U.S. dropped by 3.7 years and life expectancy for Black people in the U.S. dropped by 2.9 years.
Prior to the pandemic, studies showed that most of the differences in life expectancy across population groups were tied to health behaviors such as smoking and exercise or health conditions such as obesity. Individual behaviors, such as hesitancy to get vaccinated, continued to play a role in life expectancy declines during the pandemic. However, a much larger influence than these individual decisions are what public health experts refer to as “social determinants of health” – the conditions where we live, learn, work, play, grow and age. Factors such as access to health care, education, healthy food, clean water, jobs, transportation and safe housing are the driving forces behind many of the individual health behaviors that affect all of us on a daily basis.
“The social determinants of health are the root cause of the major diseases that kill us,” said Dr. George A. Mensah of the National Institutes of Health. In the U.S., health disparities are largely the result of historical and modern-day policies and beliefs that create greater obstacles for certain groups based on their race or ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, gender, age, disability and sexual orientation or gender identity.
Historically, one of the strongest social determinants of health has been where a person lives, with poorer communities having much lower life expectancies than wealthier communities. One example of a social determinant of health during the pandemic was that Black and Hispanic Americans faced greater risk of infection and death from COVID-19 because those groups make up a large percentage of frontline workers.
In the U.S. and Canada, many health conditions exist at much greater rates among racial and ethnic minority groups and among people who are biracial or multiracial. Recognizing, understanding and ending these health disparities is the focus of the LHSFNA’s newest publication, Racial and Ethnic Minority Health: Understanding the Causes Behind Health Gaps and Their Impact. This new pamphlet examines current health disparities in the U.S. related to diabetes, heart disease, cancer, obesity and mental health conditions. Each section explains the existing disparity and how that condition leads to poor health outcomes. Most importantly, it includes steps that both LIUNA signatory employers and LIUNA members can take to reduce risk for these conditions.
April is National Minority Health Month, a time to raise awareness about health disparities affecting racial and ethnic minority groups and encourage action through health education, early detection and the control of health conditions that already exist. LIUNA signatory contractors and other affiliates can order this new publication on racial and ethnic minority health here, browse other publications related to chronic disease or sign up here to order publications if you haven’t already.
By acknowledging the existence of health disparities, including their true root causes, we can take steps to close these gaps and improve health equity for everyone. Health equity is when every person has a fair opportunity to be as healthy as possible. The LHSFNA will continue to advocate for and support efforts to achieve health equity in every community where LIUNA members live and work.