First lady Michelle Obama plays a game with children on the South Lawn of the White House. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
Columnist

The results are in, the conclusion inescapable: Black women are exceptional, phenomenal even.

The latest evidence is perhaps the most compelling: While life expectancy for the country declined last year, the black woman held her own.

Ironic, isn’t it?

White men and women, Hispanic men and women, and black men all took a hit, according a report last week by the Centers for Disease Control. The nation’s overall life expectancy declined for the first time since 1993.

Among the leading causes of death was a spike in heart disease related primarily to obesity and a sharp rise in drug overdoses and suicide associated with depression and hopelessness.

With black women being disproportionately overweight, overworked, overlooked and underpaid, you’d think they would be on the verge of extinction.

How the black woman managed to escape such a widespread decline in life expectancy borders on the miraculous. Not only did they hold on to an average life span of 78 years, other recent studies show that black women are also the most optimistic.

“What we are seeing is that the message about the importance of health is getting through to black women,” said Linda Goler Blount, president and chief executive of Black Women’s Health Imperative, a national health advocacy nonprofit based in the District. “The data show that the majority of us know that we need to improve and are working on it. We also understand the importance of having a positive attitude. When black women are asked to define what good health means, we say things such as ‘being calm’ or ‘being at peace.’ We don’t use diseases to define it. We don’t let a condition like obesity define who we are, even though we work on getting into shape.”

A recent report by the Black Woman’s Health Imperative shows that black women tend to be less sedentary than other groups.

“Whether it’s because of a lack of transportation or a determined effort to get exercise, black women tend to walk a lot,” Blount said. “We are on the move more than most.”

The report, which is based on 20 years of research by Boston University, also found that more black women are talking with their daughters, nieces and granddaughters about the risks of unprotected sex. That and other programs focusing on teenage girls have resulted in a dramatic drop in teen pregnancy and infant mortality.

In the Washington area, black women have started dozens if not scores of neighborhood-based fitness groups and organizations that advocate health. Churches, beauty shops and sororities are on the forefront of these efforts.

“There has also been the ‘Michelle Obama Effect,’ ” Blount said. “Her emphasis on healthy eating and exercise during the past eight years has really paid off. Black women are so inspired by her — her relationships with her husband, children and mother. Black women are really trying to emulate her.”

This is not to say that black women don’t have serious health issues.

Breast cancer still claims far more black lives than white ones. There are gross disparities in medical treatment for black women and white women. Blacks are more likely to live in areas without quality grocery stores that offer a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.

“You can come to Prince George’s County, one of the wealthiest black counties in the country, and there are only two upscale, high-end supermarkets,” says economist Rhonda Sharpe. “Why wouldn’t a store of that caliber put down roots in a wealthy black community? Some folks will call it systemic racism: Black money isn’t green enough.”

The struggle for black women’s health continues. Black women are more likely to become victims of violence than any other group of women. The perpetrators are usually black men. Still, black women have been the driving force behind the Black Lives Matter movement, whose primary purpose is to stop police from killing innocent black men.

Moreover, watching cellphone videos of black men being shot by police has caused many black women to experience symptoms akin to post-traumatic stress disorder. With the election of Donald Trump, whose campaign was tainted with racism and misogyny, black women have reported heightened levels of fear and anger.

“The good news is that black women are coming together to help each other,” Blount said. “We are learning the importance of self-care. We have to take care of ourselves first if we expect to help others.”

And the outlook is good: Although white women still live on average three years longer than black women, the gap is rapidly narrowing. Black women are living longer and longer.

You can speculate on the reasons, but the results are nothing short of astounding.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.