American Indian and Alaska Native populations have higher death rates across age groups and the lowest average life expectancy compared with white, Black and Hispanic populations in the U.S., according to a recent study by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The study also shows that 34 percent of non-Hispanic Native deaths are misclassified as a different race on death certificates, leading to an underestimation of deaths in this population. The findings in “Mortality Profile of the Non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native Population, 2019,” published as a National Vital Statistics Report in November 2021, confirms what previous studies have shown and are a reminder of stark and persisting health disparities in the population.
At 71.8 years, American Indian and Alaska Native individuals have the lowest life expectancy compared with other races and ethnicities. Life expectancy was 78.8 years, on average, for white people, 74.8 years for Black people, and 81.9 years for Hispanic individuals. This average life expectancy calculation of Native individuals is lower than the 78.4 years reported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health, which uses Census Bureau projections.
The Native population also have a higher death rate than white, Black and Hispanic populations across most age groups. American Indian and Alaska Native men have higher death rates than Native women in all age groups, except for 85 and over, the study found.
The study shows that American Indian and Alaska Native individuals have higher death rates for most of the top leading causes of death and in most age groups compared with white, Black and Hispanic people. The 15 leading causes of death, including heart disease, cancer, accidental injuries, diabetes and hypertension, accounted for 79 percent of all deaths among Native individuals. The top two leading causes of death — heart disease and cancer — accounted for 37 percent of all deaths.
There were notable disparities in certain causes of death. For instance, the death rate from suicide was four times higher for Native individuals compared with Hispanics. The American Indian and Alaska Native death rate from homicide was five times higher than whites. Meanwhile, the rates of death from heart disease and cancer were similar to Black individuals. Native individuals’ rate of death from homicide was one-half of the rate for the Black population.
The study is distinctive in that it looks at the entire Native population in the U.S. using data from the 2010 decennial census. Previous studies have used data from the Indian Health Service, a federal agency that provides health care for federally recognized tribes, or 64 percent of the Native population, hence not accounting for individuals who consider themselves American Indian or Alaska Native but are not members of those tribes.
After adjusting for the misclassification of deaths, the study’s author estimates that 24,113 Native individuals died in the U.S. in 2019. The death rate for this population was 40 percent higher than the rate non-Hispanic whites, 17 percent higher than that of the non-Hispanic Black population, and 98 percent higher, or almost two times greater than, that of the Hispanic population.