October 10, 2019
What’s Driving the Longevity Gap
The decline in U.S. life expectancy is unlike anything we’ve seen
Bombshell headlines like this popped up in major news outlets last November after the government reported that life expectancy in 2017 fell for the third year in a row.
This is a troubling break from the steady improvements in lifespans since 1900, which were powered by a combination of medical breakthroughs and healthcare policy. Early in the 20th century, antibiotics dramatically increased infant lifespans. Later, new treatments like statins and stents, as well as expanded access to healthcare through Medicare and Medicaid, increased life expectancy across the age range.
But there’s another story behind this story: life expectancy very much depends on where one falls on the economic ladder.
Between 1979 and 2011 – prior to the very recent fall in longevity – the increase in lifespans was much larger for more educated, higher-earning Americans than the gains for people with less education and lower incomes, according to a study by the Center for Retirement Research (CRR).
Smoking is an important factor in this socioeconomic divide. The decline in smoking and cardiovascular disease greatly contributed to rising longevity in the latter half of the 20th century. But while all Americans are smoking less today, those in lower socioeconomic groups still smoke much more. Today, one in four of them is a smoker, compared with just one smoker for every 10 people who attended college, the CRR found.
Looking ahead, education will remain a clear dividing line, and life expectancy will continue to depend crucially on the future prevalence and impact of smoking, as well as obesity, CRR predicted. …Learn More