(CN) – Black Americans are more likely than their white counterparts to experience the premature death of family members by mid-life – events that can lead to underreported health issues lasting generations.
In findings published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers examined racial disparities in timing and exposure to family member deaths in order to reveal a layer of racial inequality that results from extended bereavement.
“The potentially substantial damage to surviving family members is a largely overlooked area of racial disadvantage,” said Debra Umberson, director of the Population Research Center.
“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.”
The team used nationally representative datasets of more than 42,00 people, comparing non-Hispanic black and non-Hispanic white Americans regarding their exposure to the deaths of biological parents, children, spouses and siblings, and measuring the total number of deaths experienced at different ages.
“If losing a family member is a disadvantage in the present in ways that disrupt the future, racial disparities in these losses over the life course are a tangible manifestation of racial inequality that needs to be systematically documented,” Umberson said.
Umberson emphasized that death presents lasting adverse health outcomes, noting that premature losses are especially difficult to process.
The team’s findings showed that black Americans experience more family member deaths overall than white people. Black people are also 90 percent more likely to experience four or more deaths by age 65, and twice as likely to experience two or more family members’ deaths by age 30. White Americans are 50 percent more likely to not experience a family member death by age 65.
The data revealed that overall black Americans are at greater risk of losing a mother between early childhood and young adulthood, a father during their mid-teens and a child by the age of 30.
Those born in the 1980s were three times more likely to lose a mother, more than twice as likely to lose a father and 20 percent more likely to lose a sibling by age 10. And those born in the 1900s to 1960s were nearly twice as likely as white Americans to lose a spouse by age 60.
“Death of family members is highly likely to disrupt and strain other family relationships as well as the formation, duration and quality of relationships across the life course, further contributing to a broad range of adverse life outcomes including poor health and lower life expectancy,” Umberson said.