The headline over health-care reporter Robert Pear's Sunday story, "Gap in Life Expectancy Widens for the Nation ," certainly sounded grim. But the actual story had good news - which Pear buried in the second paragraph.
New government research has found "large and growing" disparities in life expectancy for richer and poorer Americans, paralleling the growth of income inequality in the last two decades.
Life expectancy for the nation as a whole has increased, the researchers said, but affluent people have experienced greater gains, and this, in turn, has caused a widening gap.
What does a "widening gap" matter, as long as life expectancy is actually rising for everyone? Would lower life expectancy for the rich be a positive outcome in the Times' worldview, as long as the dreaded "gap" had narrowed? After all, most marginal improvements,from bigger televisions to experimental surgery, typicallybenefit the rich first, who can afford the hot new thing (and who provide vital seed money) enabling the new-fangled TV/surgical procedurestotake holdand eventually filterdown to the less affluent.
One of the researchers, Gopal K. Singh, a demographer at the Department of Health and Human Services, said "the growing inequalities in life expectancy" mirrored trends in infant mortality and in death from heart disease and certain cancers.
The gaps have been increasing despite efforts by the federal government to reduce them. One of the top goals of "Healthy People 2010," an official statement of national health objectives issued in 2000, is to "eliminate health disparities among different segments of the population," including higher- and lower-income groups and people of different racial and ethnic background.
While researchers do not agree on an explanation for the widening gap, they have suggested many reasons, including these:
Doctors can detect and treat many forms of cancer and heart disease because of advances in medical science and technology. People who are affluent and better educated are more likely to take advantage of these discoveries.
Smoking has declined more rapidly among people with greater education and income.
Lower-income people are more likely to live in unsafe neighborhoods, to engage in risky or unhealthy behavior and to eat unhealthy food.
Lower-income people are less likely to have health insurance, so they are less likely to receive checkups, screenings, diagnostic tests, prescription drugs and other types of care.
Near the end Pear got a conservative perspective, which he took care to label as such:
Robert E. Moffit, director of the Center for Health Policy Studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said one reason for the growing disparities might be "a very significant gap in health literacy" - what people know about diet, exercise and healthy lifestyles. Middle-class and upper-income people have greater access to the huge amounts of health information on the Internet, Mr. Moffit said.
Thomas P. Miller, a health economist at the American Enterprise Institute, agreed.
"People with more education tend to have a longer time horizon," Mr. Miller said. "They are more likely to look at the long-term consequences of their health behavior. They are more assertive in seeking out treatments and more likely to adhere to treatment advice from physicians."