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Calm Down. American Life Expectancy Isn’t Falling.

Ben Hanowell
By Ben HanowellDecember 12, 2016

The media is abuzz about a small drop in life expectancy in 2015. Yet despite sensationalist headlines, human lifespan has actually risen globally and nationally for decades if not centuries with no signs of a reversal. Alarmist news headlines follow noise rather than signal, causing us to lose sight of what’s really important: understanding how human lifespan has improved; how we can maintain that progress; how social institutions will cope with a rapidly aging population; and trends in vital statistics more fine-grained than overall life expectancy at birth.

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.

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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.

Fact: Human Lifespan Has Risen Globally for Over 250 Years

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.

[raw]

[/raw]

Fact: There’s No Evidence American Life Expectancy at Birth Is Falling

Okay. 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% 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 just over 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.

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75.4,
“1993”,
“The last year life expectancy dropped by a tiny amount, it quickly recovered upward trend for over a decade afterward.”
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76,
null,
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new Date(1997,0,1),
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null,
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new Date(1998,0,1),
76.6,
null,
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new Date(1999,0,1),
76.6,
null,
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76.9,
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],
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77,
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],
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77.5,
null,
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],
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new Date(2005,0,1),
77.5,
null,
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],
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new Date(2006,0,1),
77.7,
null,
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],
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new Date(2007,0,1),
78,
null,
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],
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new Date(2008,0,1),
78,
null,
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],
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new Date(2009,0,1),
78.4,
null,
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new Date(2010,0,1),
78.5,
null,
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new Date(2011,0,1),
78.6,
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new Date(2012,0,1),
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[/raw]
Source: FRED.

Let’s Stop Crying Wolf About Falling American Life Expectancy

Here are some examples of sensationalist, alarmist headlines about life expectancy:

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.

What We Should Be Talking About Instead of Falling Life Expectancy

(Because It Isn’t Falling)

Falling American lifespan isn’t a pressing problem. What should we focus on instead? Here are a couple of ideas:

Understand 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?

Improve 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 healthcare, Social Security, and senior caregiving systems.

Pay 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 like race, gender, income, and geography.

For example, a persistent gap in lifespan is between U.S. Whites and Blacks, with Black Americans having a substantially shorter lifespan. 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.

The Takeaway

Recent headlines about a drop in expected American lifespan are misleading. Although life expectancy dropped by a small amount between 2014 and 2015, the long-term trend shows climbing lifespan. Instead of worrying about a problem for which there is no evidence, we should be focusing on meeting the challenges that come with longer human lifespans, and understanding why lifespan differs by demographic characteristics.

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Ben Hanowell
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Ben Hanowell
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