Don’t believe the hype. Life expectancy isn’t plummeting.
What is life expectancy? Life expectancy is the expected number of years of life remaining at a particular age. It’s calculated by assuming that someone born today will go through life experiencing current age-specific risks of death. Because the bulk of human mortality occurs at young and old ages, life expectancy is heavily influenced by child death rates.
When people discuss life expectancy without any qualifications, they usually mean life expectancy at birth. Yet it’s possible to compute expected remaining years of life at any age and for any group within a population for which reliable age-specific death rates are available.
The most important thing to remember about the human lifespan is that it’s risen globally for centuries. Much of that increase is thanks to falling death rates among women and young children, especially from infectious diseases. Life expectancy began increasing first in wealthier nations in North America and Europe, as well as Japan. Now it’s rising almost everywhere.
To see the steady progress in life expectancy for yourself, explore the interactive chart below, courtesy of Our World in Data.
OK. So the human lifespan has been increasing over the last few centuries in the U.S. and other nations. There still could have been a recent slowdown or reversal, right? Well, yes, but there’s virtually no evidence for it. The 2015 annual drop in lifespan is a mere 1.2 months of life. That’s 50 percent smaller than the average among six annual drops since 1960. Yet between 1960 and 2015, life expectancy in the U.S. increased by about two months per year on average. In 1960, newborns could expect to live slightly more than 71 years. Now they can expect to live just under 79 years.
If words aren’t enough to convince you, here is an annotated picture of the numbers.
Here are some examples of sensationalist, alarmist headlines about life expectancy:
- “U.S. Life Expectancy Declines for First Time in 20 Years” (BBC News)
- “Drugs Blamed for Fall in U.S. Life Expectancy” (Sunday Times)
- “Dying Younger: U.S. Life Expectancy a ‘Real Problem’ ” (USA Today)
- “Heart Disease, Alzheimer’s and Accidents Lead to Drop in U.S. Life Expectancy” (Newsweek)
We’ve already seen that American life expectancy is probably not a “real problem.” Quite the opposite. There may be an explanation for this short-term drop. Maybe the Times is right, and it has something to do with the so-called opioid epidemic. Maybe Newsweek is right, and we should chalk it up to heart disease and Alzheimer’s (although probably not). Maybe it’s something else entirely.
By sensationalizing short-term trends without the proper long-term context, we lose sight of the progress we’ve made. That leaves us less informed about how we’ve come so far in the first place and where to go from here.
Falling American lifespan isn’t a pressing problem. What should we focus on instead? Here are a couple of ideas:
Understanding how we came this far and how to keep going. By understanding the reasons for the long-term growth of human lifespan, we can better understand the challenges we face ahead. Much of our progress has been thanks to better sanitation, improved public health measures, refrigeration, and vaccination. Most of these improvements are thanks directly or indirectly to the rise of cheap energy in the form of fossil fuels. How can we sustainably expand these lifespan-increasing improvements into marginalized populations while keeping up with our own growing needs?
Improving health and quality of life at advanced ages without overwhelming social institutions. Humans are living longer, which means we are living more of our years with the disability and illnesses that accompany age, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. The challenge now is to cope with increasingly prevalent disability and degenerative diseases without overwhelming our health care, Social Security, and senior caregiving systems.
Paying greater attention to trends in finer-grained vital statistics than overall life expectancy.
Overall U.S. life expectancy at birth is a coarse-grained measure of population health. One way to dig into vital statistics is to break life expectancy down by demographic characteristics such as race, gender, income, and geography.
For example, a persistent gap in lifespan is between U.S. whites and blacks, with black Americans having substantially shorter lifespans. Just as persistent is the gap in life expectancy between women and men, with women living longer. Unsurprisingly, lifespan increases with income, and that gap increased between 1980 and 2010. Interestingly, however, the income gap depends on where in the U.S. you live.
Another way to dig into vital statistics is to look directly at age-specific death rates. Recently, researchers found that death rates among middle-aged rural white women have increased in recent years. Meanwhile, death rates among Hispanics and blacks in the same age group have decreased faster than for non-Hispanic whites.
These more detailed views of vital statistics highlight specific areas where U.S. population health has progressed. They also shine a spotlight on areas in need of improvement.