Life expectancy rises for city, but racial gaps remain

Bostonians may be living longer, but deep disparities continue to exist between whites and minorities, the Boston Public Health Commission said in a report this week.

Bostonians born between 2004 and 2006 can expect to live about 78 years, but broken down, blacks can expect to live 74 years, while whites can expect to live almost 79 years and Latinos 81 years, according to the commission's Health of Boston report. Life expectancy for the Asian population couldn't be calculated due to the small number of deaths.

Deaths recorded in Boston fell to 3,864 people in 2006, the year with the most recent data. Dorchester, the city's largest neighborhood, saw 746 deaths and Mattapan saw 92. Roslindale and Roxbury saw roughly 390 deaths. The fewest deaths occurred in Charlestown, at 87 people.

The total figure of 3,864 people is down from 4,500 in 2000, since fewer people are dying from cancer and heart disease, two of the state's top killers, according to the commission.

"You have people able to access really essential services," said Dr. Barbara Ferrer, the commission's executive director, pointing to Boston's numerous health centers and teaching hospitals.

Anti-smoking programs have also led to a payoff, she said. "When you have that web of services, you do start seeing good news."

Even so, infant mortality rates for black babies have remained high, with black infants accounting for 28.7 percent of all Boston births but 65.2 percent of all infant deaths in 2006. In the period covering 1994 and 2006, black women had the highest rate of low birth-weight babies, or babies born at 3 pounds or less.

Dorchester saw 37 infant deaths in 2006, while Mattapan saw 7 and Roxbury saw 27, according to the report.

"It continues to haunt us through life expectancy," Ferrer said. "That's not acceptable."

Part of the low birth-weight could be tied to chronic stress related to racism, Ferrer said, creating an unhealthy biological response from the mother and affecting the baby.

Black children also had the highest asthma hospitalization rates, five times higher than for white children, three times higher than Asian children and one and half times higher than for Latino children.

Substance abuse, which Ferrer called a "rampant problem," became a leading cause of death, bypassing bronchitis and emphysema and is now ranked higher up with cancer, heart disease, stroke and injuries such as homicides and car crashes.

Between 2001 and 2007, the percentage of whites admitted to abuse treatment programs rose 34.7 percent, while the percentages for blacks and Latinos dropped 28.7 percent and 19.4 percent, respectively.

Boston saw 17,689 publicly funded substance abuse treatment admissions in 2006, with Dorchester making up 2,956 of those admissions. South End saw the highest number of admissions at 6,064 and the North End saw the lowest at 130 admissions.

Out of Boston's 66,627 emergency room visits for all injuries, Dorchester made up 18,974 visits. Mattapan made up 3,674 visits. Charlestown had the fewest at 1,510 visits.

Other figures included the homicide rates by Boston neighborhood. Dorchester as a whole had a total of 26 homicides in 2006- making up almost half of the 59 homicides total for that year. Roxbury had the next highest at 15 and Mattapan recorded 7 murders, according to the report.

The number of gunshot and stabbing victims who survived hit 190 in Dorchester, out of 477 non-fatal assaults total in Boston in 2006. Mattapan came in at 29, while West Roxbury saw fewer than 5 nonfatal assaults, the lowest number among the neighborhoods.

In diabetes deaths, Dorchester was among the hardest hit communities, recording 73 deaths in total. The fewest number of deaths - six total - occurred in the Fenway area, according to the report.

The full commission report is available at bphc.org.