What’s going on with U.S. life expectancy?

One of the stranger developments in the United States over the last couple of decades has been a rise in rates of illness and mortality for non-Hispanic white Americans, especially women, the middle-aged, and those with low levels of education. Despite this, U.S. life expectancy continued its decades-long rise, at least up until the start of last year.

However, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2015 overall U.S. life expectancy fell slightly, from 78.9 to 78.8. For males, it declined from 76.5 to 76.3 and for women from 81.3 to 81.2.

A modest one-year drop isn’t in itself necessarily cause for concern. U.S. life expectancy also fell in
1980 and in 1993, but those drops were attributable to specific problems, namely, a really bad flu season in 1980 and the AIDS epidemic in 1993. In addition, even the reduced life expectancy for 2015 was still longer than any year prior to 2012 (see Table 8 on page 34 of this PDF from the CDC. Note that the 2014 data in the table were later adjusted slightly based on data from Medicare; prior to the adjustment the 2014 life expectancies were about the same as those now reported for 2015.)

Even if the one-year drop doesn’t necessarily imply that it will continue, it’s still troubling that life expectancy seems to have reached a plateau, with no improvement since 2012. (See the same table just mentioned.)

And there’s also the negative trend for some white Americans I mentioned in the first paragraph above. Whites, and especially white women, still have significantly better life expectancies than blacks in the U.S., but the trend-line for notable subgroups of whites is downward while for African Americans the numbers are improving. I linked to more information on this in posts from September of 2013 (link), April 2015 (link), and December of 2015 (link). For more on misconceptions about life expectancy, see earlier posts addressing misstatements on the subject by former governor Rick Perry (R-Texas) (here) and former senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyoming) here.

Here are some links to more information about yesterday’s CDC report:

Finally, I should emphasize that all the life-expectancy figures mentioned here are for life expectancy at birth, a figure computed from current death rates for people of different ages. It’s an estimate of the average age of death for Americans born in 2015. If you’re an American reading this, your own actuarial life expectancy is greater, because you’ve outlived the people whose deaths at an earlier age brought down the average. You can look up the estimated remaining life expectancy for people your age at this link on the Social Security website.

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What’s going on with U.S. life expectancy? — 1 Comment

  1. Pingback: More about what affects U.S. life expectancy | D Gary Grady

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