(CBS News) The life expectancy gap between whites and blacks is narrowing in the United States.
Analyzed data from the U.S. National Vital Statistics System, published in the June 6 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association, shows that from 2003 and 2008, the life expectancy at birth for non-Hispanic black men rose from 68.8 to 70.8 years and for non-Hispanic white men rose from 75.3 to 76.2 years . These new statistics lowered the differences in the average lifespans for both group from 6.5 years to 5.4 years.
Improvements in racial disparities of women's lifespans were also reported. Non-Hispanic white women's life expectancy from 2003 to 2008 went up from 80.3 to 81.2 years and for non-Hispanic black women, increased from 75.7 to 77.5 years, cutting the difference from 4.6 to 3.7 years.
Elizabeth Arias, a demographer with the National Center for Health Statistics in Hyattsville, Md., told the Los Angeles Times that the new numbers are huge improvements from when the data was first compiled in 1900. Back then, the gap was 14 years. An average black man could expect to live 32.5 years and a black woman would have 33.5 birthdays. On the other hand, white men and women lived an average of 46.3 years and 48.3 years respectively.
Between 2003 and 2008, the leading cause of death in all men was heart disease - 22 percent of deaths- and homicide - 19 percent. For women, they were more likely to die from heart disease - 29 percent - or diabetes - 11 percent.
The researchers said that the gap decrease was thanks to more improvements in the lives of black men and women and some disturbing trends that were increasing in white men and women, even though everyone's overall lifespan increased.
While heart disease, diabetes, homicide, HIV and infant mortality remain the categories which separate black and white lifespans the most according to the study, black communities made major strides in lessening the number of occurrences in many of those areas. Lower rates of unintentional injury deaths (such as car accidents), HIV-deaths and heart disease were the top three reasons why black men's lifespans improved. For black women, less heart disease deaths and unintentional injury fatalities led to more years. HIV, diabetes, and stroke-related deaths also helped close the discrepancy.
However, more white women and especially white men died from an overdose from prescription medication - known as poisoning mortalities. Poisonings outnumbered the number of motor vehicle accidents for the first time in 2008.