Life Expectancy in Chicago: How Race and Gender Affect Your Longevity

By Michael Meredith and David DeGooyer

A study of life expectancy across different races/ethnicities and sexes revealed that rates were disproportionate.

Data show that Chicago’s African American community has the lowest life expectancy out of the race/ethnicity data reported, while Hispanic people have the highest. In 2010, on average, Hispanic Chicagoans lived 12 years longer than Black Chicagoans.

This graphic can alternatively be viewed here.

Although Black Chicagoans have had the lowest life expectancy between 1990 to 2010, the number has steadily risen from 68 years of age in 1990, to 72 in 2010.

Data suggests that cardiovascular diseases could be a major contributing issue, given that they are the leading causes of death globally.

Dr. Joan E. Briller, a cardiologist from the University of Illinois at Chicago, described disparities of heart disease between races/ethnicities and sex. Briller said that the most common cause of heart disease is when we get a buildup of cholesterol blockages that form clots, which close off the artery that supports the heart muscle.

“If the artery is completely closed, then some of the heart muscle cells will actually die,” Briller said. “And that’s what a heart attack is.”

The four-chamber stack is a four-part MRI sequence scan of the human heart. The image depicts one chamber of the heart. Credit: University of Minnesota’s Atlas of Human Cardiac Anatomy

Briller also shared some 2020 statistics from the American Heart Association, which stated that about 60% of Black males have some form of heart disease. In addition, Black women were at 57%, white males at 50.6%, and white females at 43.4%.

According to this data, Black people have a higher prevalence of heart disease than white people or Hispanic people. Briller said that she believed there are some genetic predispositions that may be a factor for Black people, as well as a lack of access to healthcare.

In addition, Briller asserted that having a good diet and access to healthy foods contributes to the prevention of heart disease, and this may be difficult if one lives in what Briller called a “food desert.”

Bodega in Belmont Cragin, the neighborhood with the largest Hispanic population in Chicago. Credit: David DeGooyer

Food deserts are low-income areas or neighborhoods that have a lack of supermarkets and a lack of healthy, affordable food; thus, residents in these areas turn to cheaper alternatives, such as fast food.

Research has shown that Black and Hispanic neighborhoods have fewer supermarkets than white neighborhoods do, but minority neighborhoods instead have more small grocery stores (or bodegas) that have a rich supply of junk food, but a lack of healthy foods.

Data for women are barred towards the left with warmer colors, whereas men are towards the right with cooler colors. This graphic can alternatively be viewed here.

Data from the City of Chicago Data Portal also shows that women outlive men between every race/ethnicity, meaning that white women outlived white men, and Hispanic women outlived Hispanic men. This disparity was present in 1990, 2000, and 2010.

In terms of sex differences, Briller said that men, on average, have a higher prevalence of heart disease than women to some degree; however, there are differences between sexes for the different kinds of heart disease.

Briller said that when a man has a heart attack, that is most commonly caused by cholesterol plaque that builds up in the artery, but for women, the plaque tends to not close off the artery, but instead breaks down and travels to smaller parts of the artery and closes them off.

Women are also more prone to get specific types of heart disease than men, according to Briller.

“Women may be more prone to having microvascular dysfunction than men do, but there’s an overlap between both genders,” Briller said.

Damone Sims, a 21-year-old Black Chicagoan, described how he and his family were negatively impacted by the early deaths of their loved ones, saying that he had a family friend who died of health-related issues with his heart.

“Everybody [in my family] was down and sad,” Sims said. “They had a memorial for him … he was around my age.”

Sims also said that his grandmother and great grandmother both died of cancer, which was likely because they were smokers. He said that his family was especially affected because they were close with the two grandmothers.

Dale Embers, a lecturer at the University of Illinois Chicago in the math and statistics department and a former actuary who worked in the health care sector, said that one of the most significant factors in life expectancy from an underwriter’s point of view is smoking status.

When advertisers first began to promote cigarettes, the dangers associated with smoking were still relatively unknown. This, along with film and television portrayals of smoking as a status symbol, led to widespread instances of smoking, especially among teenagers.

This graphic can alternatively be viewed here.

According to data from the World Health Organization, smoking and heart disease are the leading risk factor causes of death in high-income countries like the United States.

Embers also pointed out that there can be a marked difference in healthcare quality in different communities. “People who live in poorer communities often have more limited access to good quality healthcare,” he said.

As Briller said, the lack of access to healthcare is often more prevalent in Black communities.

Embers also noted that insurance companies tend to favor people who are already in good health because they present less risk than those who may have family histories of heart disease, smoking, or other high-risk factors.

There are also non-health or lifestyle-related factors that could affect numbers in Chicago. People who retire in Chicago, where the average retirement age is 60, may move to other, warmer weather locations upon retirement.

This could cause the life expectancy numbers to trend downward since fewer senior citizens remain in the area. According to data from Census Reporter, the average age of Chicagoans in 2018 was about 35; senior citizens made up the smallest segment of the population.

But in terms of insurability, the older one gets, the more likely they are to keep living because of what they have already survived.

“A 70-year-old has a higher life expectancy than a 20-year-old,” Embers said. “There are so many things that could happen over those 50 years that it’s less likely that the 20-year-old will reach the age of 70.”

People who work high-stress jobs, hard labor, or low-paying jobs are often also at higher risk for anxiety or stress-related factors that may lead to decreases in overall life expectancy.

Black people in Chicago are less likely to have office jobs than other demographics, which may contribute to their lower life expectancy numbers in the city.

“Underwriters prefer people who have office jobs because they are likely to live longer,” Embers said.