Our allotted time on this earth is not, and will never be, guaranteed.  Our individual life expectancy’s are dictated by a myriad of factors…..many of which we can influence, but many more which we cannot.  Some parts genetic luck and some parts driven by a lifetime of choices and decisions.  However, even with all the potential variables that still exist within the human condition, those of us living today, on average, will live longer than any of our previous generations.  A review of the history of life expectancy in this country reveals just how far we have come in increasing the quantity of life that our citizens can expect.  But, it also reveals that the US is now beginning to lag behind many other “developed” nations and that the projected trend is negative.

As a refresher, “Life Expectancy” is defined as the average lifespan for an entire population (in this case the US).


Life Expectancy in the US Today

The average life expectancy in the US today is ~ 82 years for women and ~ 79 years for men.  According to http://www.worldlifeexpectancy.com/usa/life-expectancy the state of Hawaii has the highest male/female combined average life expectancy at 81 years while Mississippi has the lowest average at 75 years.  While most of us would expect American life expectancy to be ranked within the top ten globally, it is not.  According to the site referenced above the US is now ranked at # 31.  The average American now has a shorter life expectancy than citizens of Japan, Switzerland, Australia, Spain, Italy, Israel, South Korea,……..

 The Current US Trend

Over the past two years the US trend has suddenly turned negative.  After many years of incremental—but overall consistent—increases in US life expectancy the years 2015 and 2016 revealed a turn in the opposite direction.  The decline is reported to be on the order of .1 to .2 years.  While seemingly a very small change experts in the field consider it to be an alarming development.  In an article in the New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/08/health/life-expectancy-us-declines.html Dr. Peter Muennig from Columbia University’s School of Public health said….

“A 0.1 decrease is huge.”  “Life expectancy increases, and that’s very consistent and predictable, so to see it decrease, that’s very alarming.”

Many culprits are being cited as contributory causes of this reversal.  Those would include:

  • A seemingly irreversible trend in US obesity rates
  • Continued increased rates of Type II Diabetes
  • Increased suicide rates (especially among the young)
  • Increased drug related deaths resulting from the current opioid crisis

It is unclear when—or if—this negative trend will be reversed.  What is clear is that the overall history of life expectancy in this country will be impacted.  It is also clear that, despite our self-image, we are lagging behind many other developed nations in terms of the health and well-being of our citizenry.


History of Life Expectancy in the US

Those of us living in this country today, despite recent developments, can reasonably expect to live significantly longer lives than our ancestors.  What could early Americans expect?

The 18th Century

During most of the 18th century the average life expectancy for early colonists/citizens was somewhere between 36 and 38 years.  Infant mortality was rampant.  Deadly contagions spread like wildfire and were virtually untreatable.  The field of medicine was much more art—or voodoo—than science.  Living conditions were marginal at best and usually dirty and unsanitary for the masses.  Overall, life was harsh and unforgiving.  There was little margin for error and life spans were dictated more by sheer luck than anything else.  Living to be a grandparent was the exception to the norm.

The 19th Century

By the early to mid 19th century things had started to improve…..slightly.  At the onset of the Civil War a person could reasonably expect to live to the ripe old age of 42.  That number actually took a downward turn during the years  1860 to 1870 due to the disastrous impact of the Civil War and its aftermath.  However, the medical field was finally creeping out of the dark ages and beginning to cast off its use of leeches and noxious concoctions as worthless cure-alls.  In addition, for the first time in history, a significant percentage of the population had access to clean drinking water.  Consumption of contaminated water had been the scourge of American life for previous generations.  Things were looking up.  The constant struggle to survive was being mitigated just a bit.

The 20th Century and Beyond

By the onset of the 20th century real, sustainable, progress was being made.  By 1950 life expectancy had increased to an average of 65 years.  An incredible increase of 23 years, or 55%, over a short 100 year period.  Infant mortality rates had been dramatically reduced.  Science and Medicine had finally gotten the upper hand on killers such as Polio, Small Pox, Malaria, and Yellow Fever.  The effects of nutrition were much better understood and comprehensive efforts were initiated to educate the public.  American life had gotten easier and less harsh.  Luck was still a factor but more control was now in the hands of the individual.  That individual could now take steps and make informed decisions that would improve his chances for a longer life.    From that period on, with few exceptions, the trend has been positive and steady.

Our History of Life Expectancy-Where Do We Go From Here?

As indicated earlier, that positive trend has seen a reversal over the past two years.  Only the passage of time will reveal the long term implications of that reversal.  Have we reached the apex?  Has the ever-increasing complexity of our lives and our societal pressures initiated a prolonged decline in life expectancy?  Why is it that the US is not a leader among developed nations?  And….from a broader perspective, have we gotten to the point where we have traded quality for quantity?  In our quest for longevity have we sacrificed quality of life?


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