Research

US Life Span Lags Other Rich Countries

Table of Life Expectancy in 2016Life expectancy for 65-year-olds in the United States is less than in France, Japan, Spain, Italy, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Germany.

Fifty years ago, we ranked third.

First, some perspective: during that time, the average U.S. life span increased dramatically, from age 79 to 84. The problem is that we haven’t kept up with the gains made by the nine other industrialized countries, which has caused our ranking to slide.

A troubling undercurrent in this trend is that women, more than men, are creating the downdraft, according to an analysis by the Center for Retirement Research. The life expectancy of 65-year-old American women is 2½ years less than women in the other countries. The difference for men is only about a year.

The center’s researchers identified the main culprits holding us back: circulatory diseases, respiratory conditions, and diabetes.  Smoking and obesity are the two major risk factors fueling these trends.

Americans used to consume more cigarettes per capita than anyone in the world. That’s no longer true. In recent years, the U.S. smoking rate has fallen sharply, resulting in fewer deaths from high blood pressure, stroke, and other circulatory diseases.

But women haven’t made as much progress as men.  Men’s smoking peaked back in the mid-1960s, and by around 1990, the delayed benefits of fewer and fewer smokers started improving men’s life expectancy. Smoking didn’t peak for women until the late-1970s, and their death rate for smoking-related diseases continued to rise for many years after that, slowing the gains in U.S. life expectancy overall.  More recently, this pattern has reversed so that women are now beginning to see some improvement from reduced smoking.

Obesity is a growing problem across the developed world. But in this country, the obesity rate is increasing two times faster than in the other nine countries. Nearly 40 percent of American adults today are obese, putting them at risk of type-2 diabetes and circulatory and cardiovascular diseases.

As smoking’s popularity has waned, the researchers concluded, “the negative effects from rising levels of obesity have surpassed the effects from cessation of smoking.”

To read the report, authored by Anqi Chen, Alicia Munnell, Geoffrey Sanzenbacher, and Alice Zulkarnain, see “Why Has U.S. Life Expectancy Fallen Below Other Countries?”

The research reported herein was performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement Research Consortium. The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the author(s) and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA or any agency of the federal government. Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, makes any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report. Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.

4 Responses to US Life Span Lags Other Rich Countries

  1. Jan says:

    Have you thought about the opioid crisis? It is taking out our younger/middle aged people, causing the longevity to fall.

    • Jan, you’re right. A famous study found that the tragic opioid crisis and other causes of “deaths of despair” are increasing mortality for young adults and people in their prime.

      What differentiates this study is that it is looking at the longevity of people who already have made it to 65. For them, conditions that cause harm slowly and over the long-term, such as obesity and smoking, start kicking in at this age.

      Thanks for your thoughts!
      Kim

  2. This is an unusual perspective focusing on adults who have made it to 65, thereby having avoided being shot, killed in a motor vehicle accident or died from a drug overdose, which are big reasons that the overall U.S. life expectancy is so far below that of similar countries.

    Lifestyle is a huge factor. A European in their late 60’s will walk to the store or ride their bicycle, while an American gets in their car. The European has close family connections, while the American’s children may live thousands of miles away.

  3. PJ says:

    Reading this certainly helped me pick a “better snack” for the next time I have the munchies.

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