What Do Statistics Reveal About Life Expectancy Trends?

Statistics Reveal About Life Expectancy Trends

The US has lagged behind most of its peer countries in life expectancy gains since the 1980s. This year it fell, the second consecutive year in a row, causing a big widening of the gap. The national trend masks a lot of variation by sex, race/ethnicity, and income, but in every case, the American picture looks grim.

Deaths from suicide and gunshots are far more common in the America statistics than in other rich countries, which help explain why American men and women are so much shorter lived on average than people living elsewhere. But mortality differences at younger ages are also a major contributor to the gap. Mortality rates for Americans at ages 25-29 are nearly twice as high as in other countries, and those ratios have been increasing over the past decade.

Adding up the contributions of different causes of death makes clear that higher mortality from unintentional injuries, drug overdoses, homicide, and chronic liver disease/cirrhosis are making the biggest contributions to the US life expectancy shortfall. This is true of both men and women, and for each 5-year age group, they account for around 10% of the male and female life expectancy gap with the world average. Circulatory diseases and cancers make smaller contributions, as do deaths from other mental/behavioral disorders or diseases of the nervous system, which are much more important for women than for men.

What Do Statistics Reveal About Life Expectancy Trends?

In 2022, the one-year decline in American life expectancy was largely driven by COVID-19 mortality (a big factor for both men and women), which accounted for over half of the decline. But it was more than offset by lower mortality from heart disease, unintentional injuries, and cancer, and a small increase from homicide and from kidney failure. Deaths from cirrhosis and other chronic liver disease also made significant contributions, but they were smaller for women than for men.

The CDC report is the latest in a long line of research that points to the same conclusions: that America isn’t doing as well as most other rich countries, and that it’s possible for the country to catch up if it starts focusing more on prevention and treatment. Countries that have improved their lives the most, such as Costa Rica and Portugal, started by expanding access to health care. They also focused on the health and economic benefits of improving survival from heart disease, cancer, and other ills that are preventable and treatable.

While lowering the national mortality rate is critical, it’s even more important to address disparities in health and life expectancy across the population. This is the most challenging but also most important aspect of US improvement efforts. This week, Bitton will look at how the US is performing in comparison to other rich countries and explore some of the reasons for those disparities. Sign up to receive his weekly column here.

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