In the U.S., life expectancy by year of birth has risen steadily and dramatically since the beginning of the 20th century. With only a few notable drops, the expected age of death among Americans has climbed from around 47 in the year 19001 to an average of about 79 in 2015.2
While drops in the U.S. life expectancy in 2015 and 2016 have some people concerned that we may be in a significant downward spiral, that's probably not true in the long term. Certain factors may be negatively impacting America’s average life expectancy in the short term, as we shall see, but overall the trend is positive—both in the United States and around the world.
Let's take a closer look at what affects current life expectancy predictions and what we can do to help extend life for all, now and in the future.
U.S. Life Expectancy by Year: The 20th and 21st Centuries
According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics, life expectancy rose inconsistently in the United States from 1900 until midcentury.3 The average age at death took a significant plunge during the Great Depression, but recovered and continued to rise over the next several decades. By the time of the post-World War II economic boom, life expectancy in America had settled into a steady upward trend, increasing two months per year on average between 1960 and 2015.4
But even during that time, several notable events occured that created exceptions to this positive trend. In 1962 and 1963, a significant bout of flu caused life expectancy to decline. And three decades later, in 1993, the height of the AIDS epidemic saw life expectancy drop yet again. In recent years, as the opioid epidemic has taken hold, another dip in life expectancy has been observed.5
The most recent statistics show a decline in life expectancy in both 2015 and 2016, largely due to the increased use and abuse of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and tramadol. Drug overdoses accounted for more than 63,000 deaths in 2016, two-thirds of which were due to opioids. Combined with a leveling off of decreases in heart disease mortality, this has resulted in a measurable drop in life expectancy.6 Luckily, government health initiatives are starting to take this very seriously, and could help curb the impact of the opioid crisis on public health in the U.S.
The Income-Life Expectancy Correlation
First, it’s worth noting that the average life expectancy in the U.S. is heavily influenced by income. Census data from 2011 demonstrates that eight of the 10 states with the shortest lifespans are also among the bottom 10 when it comes to average household income:7
- West Virginia
- South Carolina
Conversely, more than half of the states with the greatest lifespans (6 in 10) scored within the top ten for average household income: New Jersey, Hawaii, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and California.7
This correlation is generally thought to be due to the decreased availability of both medical care and preventative education in poorer states.
U.S. Life Expectancy Compared to Similar Countries
Life expectancy in the U.S. is roughly equivalent with that of North America overall: a year lower for men at 76 compared to 77 across the North American continent, and equal for women at 81 years.8 The numbers for Canada are slightly higher; the numbers for Mexico are lower.
When it comes to how America ranks globally for life expectancy, the U.S. is among the top-ranking countries. The highest life expectancies can be found in other highly developed countries such as Australia, France, Japan, Portugal and South Korea. These nations enjoy life expectancies of between 80 and 85 years, compared to the average U.S. expectancy of roughly 79.9
Global Life Expectancies: Trending Upward, With Major Room for Improvement
Average life expectancy is rising steadily both in America and in many other countries across the globe. While this owes to a wide variety of reasons, one big contributor is the falling death rate among women and children.
This decline can be attributed largely to industrialization, especially in developing nations. With greater production comes a greater ability to meet basic human needs, improved infrastructure, increased social organization and a significantly expanded healthcare system. Of course, as we saw above, the simple correlation between industrialization and wealth also has a great deal to do with why people live longer in countries with more developed infrastructures.
As of 2016, the average worldwide life expectancy was 72 years of age, but this figure masks some more alarming numbers in specific regions of the globe. Some African nations, for instance, continue to have life expectancies hovering in the low 50s.10
Still, considering that the average life expectancy of people before the Industrial Revolution was roughly 30 years, this is a stunning achievement in public health.11
Challenges to Increasing Life Expectancy…and Some Solutions
Of course, there still exist numerous challenges when it comes to life expectancy. Sanitation issues in many parts of South America, Africa and Asia enable the rapid outbreak of diseases that are uncommon elsewhere around the globe. HIV also continues to plague countries that lack access to medicine and reproductive education.
It’s not all bad news, though: Antiretroviral therapy (ART) has the power to significantly extend life for HIV sufferers. And as we bring those new medicines to developing countries, we can expect the average life expectancy of those with HIV/AIDS to rise.
Additionally, public health interventions and initiatives can positively impact life expectancy trends. For example, through a combination of better education and research, more attentive pain management, administration of addiction-reversing medications, and careful use of data, the U.S. government is making efforts to combat the opioid epidemic. With more than 14,000 treatment centers available in America, the opportunity to make a difference is significant.
Health Initiatives at Home and Worldwide
Other health initiatives both at home and around the globe show significant promise. For instance, the American Cancer Society is currently driving initiatives to bring cancer awareness, screening and prevention to underserved communities.
The American College of Sports Medicine and the American Medical Association recently partnered to form a nonprofit program known as the Exercise is Medicine initiative. This and other similar programs seek to communicate with doctors and medical providers about the role of exercise and wellness so that they may transmit this information to their patients and help them live healthier lives.
The World Health Organization maintains a raft of health initiatives on an ongoing basis, ranging from programs on HIV/AIDS to healthy aging to nutrition. The combination of these programs will, over time, make a significant difference in life expectancy in the U.S. and elsewhere. In fact, recent research demonstrates that predictions for U.S. life expectancy by 2050 may actually be too conservative by three to eight years.12 Only time will tell, of course, but the study does demonstrate that ongoing efforts to advance modern medicine and science can help improve and lengthen lives.
Would you like to learn more about life expectancy and what you can do to increase it? Do you want to educate underserved communities about health initiatives, improve the nutrition of young children or combat the opioid crisis yourself?
Contact our Admissions Advisors here at Kent State University to learn more about how you can do your part with an online Master of Public Health.
1 Retrieved on May 25, 2018, from disabled-world.com/calculators-charts/states.php
2 Retrieved on May 25, 2018, from ourworldindata.org/life-expectancy#the-interactive-world-map-of-life-expectancy
3 Retrieved on May 25, 2018, from www.disabled-world.com/calculators-charts/states.php
4 Retrieved on May 25, 2018, from www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/medical_examiner/2016/12/life_expectancy_is_still_increasing.html
5 Retrieved on May 25, 2018, from washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/fueled-by-drug-crisis-us-life-expectancy-declines-for-a-second-straight-year/2017/12/20
6 Retrieved on May 25, 2018, from economist.com/united-states/2018/01/04/life-expectancy-in-america-has-declined-for-two-years-in-a-row
7 Retrieved on May 25, 2018, from disabled-world.com/calculators-charts/states.php
8 Retrieved on May 25, 2018, from statista.com/statistics/274513/life-expectancy-in-north-america/
9 Retrieved on May 25, 2018, from ourworldindata.org/life-expectancy#the-interactive-world-map-of-life-expectancy
10 Retrieved on May 25, 2018, from who.int/gho/mortality_burden_disease/life_tables/situation_trends/en/
11 Retrieved on May 25, 2018, from ourworldindata.org/life-expectancy
12 Retrieved on May 25, 2018, from abcnews.go.com/Health/ActiveAging/humans-live-longer-2050-scientists-predict/story?id=9330511