The reality is that life expectancy has not improved for everyone. In fact, in some cases, life expectancy is actually decreasing.
Jan Schakowsky

Life expectancy is an estimate of how long, on average, a person of a given age can expect to live. The life expectancy at birth is the most widely used indicator of life expectancy. Life expectancy is an illustrative metric.

life expectancy

The life expectancy reflects regional circumstances. Compared to more developed nations, the life expectancy at birth is relatively low in less developed nations. Due to high infant mortality rates, life expectancy at birth may be lower than life expectancy at age one in some less developed countries. Our current age, sex, race and ethnicity, and the area in which we live all affect how long we will live.

Life expectancy in the US

Sadly, this latest study reveals a shocking increase in death rates and a decrease in longevity.

With very few exceptions, life expectancy has increased in the US: from 47 years in 1900 to 68 years in 1950 to nearly 79 years in 2019. However, it dropped to 77 in 2020 and then to just over 76 in 2021. Since the 1920s, that is the biggest two-year drop ever recorded. However, life expectancy statistics are averages tallied from tens of thousands of individuals divided into distinct groups, and some groups fare significantly better than others:

  • American Indian and Alaska Native populations’ life expectancy decreased more than that of other ethnic groups; at 65.2 years, the most recent estimates for these populations’ life expectancy are comparable to those of the US population in 1944.
  • Black Americans have a shorter average lifespan (70.8 years) than do white Americans (76.4 years), although this difference had been closing up until the publication of the most recent report.
  • The longest life expectancy among the ethnic groups for which data is gathered continues to be for Asian Americans (83.5 years). The next group with the highest life expectancy was Hispanic Americans, with 77.7 years.
  • Life expectancy for men and women is 79.1 years and 73.2 years, respectively, reflecting a long-apparent, substantial difference.

It’s critical to keep in mind that these projections are based on the average life expectancies of thousands of people. For the populations they represent, they are accurate, but not very accurate for a specific person. The length of our lives is also influenced by other elements, such as our health habits, illnesses, and genetics.

Why is the US life expectancy declining?

According to the 2022 report, about two-thirds of the decline in life expectancy was caused by COVID-19, drug overdoses, and unintentional injury. Suicides and illnesses of the heart and liver were additional causes.

If it weren’t for a small bit of good news—declines in deaths from chronic lung disease, pneumonia, influenza, and Alzheimer’s disease—the decline in life expectancy would have been even greater.

Uncomfortable differences in life expectancy
Over the past two years, some groups have seen much greater declines in life expectancy than others:

  • For the American Indian/Native Alaskan population, 6.6 years
  • For Hispanic Americans, 4.2 years
  • For Black Americans, four years
  • For white Americans, 2.4 years
  • For Asian Americans, 2.1 years.

Many of these disparities are probably explained by the social determinants of health. For instance, those in the US with the shortest life expectancies typically experience the highest levels of poverty, food insecurity, and lack of access to healthcare, all of which are factors that lower life expectancy. Additionally, groups with lower life expectancies frequently work in dangerous occupations that cannot be performed virtually, live in crowded conditions, and have less access to vaccinations, all of which raise the risk of contracting COVID-19 or passing away from it.

Significantly, life expectancy varies greatly between states. Politics, vaccination laws, pollution, climatic variations, or other erratic factors may all play a role in the lower life expectancy in southern states.

The conclusion

The average lifespan is only one indicator of health. Reports on life expectancy do not directly capture other measurements, such as infant mortality, maternal mortality, vaccination and cancer screening rates, and years of healthy life lived. However, it is remarkable — and disappointing — that life expectancy is now declining after having increased for many years, especially at a time when scientists are reexamining ageing and the lifespan’s upper and lower bounds. If we make progress in containing the COVID-19 pandemic and opioid epidemic, this downward trend might be reversed.

Can we end inequalities in life expectancy and prevent premature death? These are important objectives that call for both individual and group effort. We can all make a commitment to increase our physical activity, eat better, and work harder to maintain our health. However, political leaders and the public health sector also have crucial roles to play, particularly for citizens who are disadvantaged and marginalised. It is noteworthy, for instance, that some of the states with the lowest life expectancies also have the highest rates of residents without health insurance but have rejected Medicaid expansion.

Although we may not be aware of our exact expiration dates, I’d much rather have them move later than sooner as a sign of our overall health.