African-Americans are twice as likely as whites to lose two or more family members by age 30 — often their mother, father or a sibling — a factor that may contribute to poorer health over a lifetime, researchers said Monday.
The study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is described as the first to show "the corrosive effects on black families and communities" of this repeated grief and bereavement.
The report was based on 42,000 people whose information was recorded in nationally representative health surveys over the past several decades.
It found that whites were 50 percent more likely than blacks to never experience a family member death at all by age 65.
But blacks were 90 percent more likely than whites to experience four or more deaths in the family by age 65.
Black Americans are known to die early at much higher rates than white Americans due to a host of reasons, including poverty, crime and lack of health care.
But researchers said this toll has never before been explored as a factor in racial health disparities.
Losing a parent, or other family member, so frequently "is a unique source of adversity for black Americans that contributes to lifelong racial inequality," said the study, led by researchers at the University of Texas (UT), Austin and Michigan State University.
The loss of these important social connections can trigger health problems through stress, financial crises, and instability at home.
The study pointed to "substantial literature on bereavement" that shows loss of family members "undermines physical health and increases mortality risk."
"The potentially substantial damage to surviving family members is a largely overlooked area of racial disadvantage," said Debra Umberson, a sociology professor who is the director of the UT Population Research Center.
"By calling attention to this heightened vulnerability of black Americans, our findings underscore the need to address the potential impact of more frequent and earlier exposure to family member deaths in the process of cumulative disadvantage."