[ExI] US life expectancy stagnant and/or declining

Kevin Freels kevinfreels at insightbb.com
Tue Apr 22 15:13:52 UTC 2008

Interesting article as we were recently debating the public health system:


Life expectancy no longer improving for large segment of the US population

One of the major aims of the U.S. health system is improving the health 
of all people, particularly those segments of the population at greater 
risk of health disparities. In fact, overall life expectancy in the U.S. 
increased more than seven years for men and more than six years for 
women between 1960 and 2000.

Now, a new, long-term study of mortality trends in U.S. counties over 
the same four decades reports a troubling finding: These gains are not 
reaching many parts of the country; rather, the life expectancy of a 
significant segment of the population is declining or at best stagnating.

Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and the 
University of Washington found that 4% of the male population and 19% of 
the female population experienced either decline or stagnation in 
mortality beginning in the 1980s.

“There has always been a view in U.S. health policy that inequalities 
are more tolerable as long as everyone’s health is improving. There is 
now evidence that there are large parts of the population in the United 
States whose health has been getting worse for about two decades,” said 
Majid Ezzati, Associate Professor of International Health at HSPH and 
lead author of the study.

The majority of the counties that had the worst downward swings in life 
expectancy were in the Deep South, along the Mississippi River, and in 
Appalachia, extending into the southern portion of the Midwest and into 

The researchers analyzed mortality data from the National Center for 
Health Statistics
and population data from the U.S. Census Bureau between 1959 and 2001. 
The study is the first to look at mortality trends in the U.S. by county 
over such a long period of time. (County data is the smallest measurable 
unit for which mortality data is available.) The National Center for 
Health Statistics stopped providing data after 2001.

The results showed that, between 1961 and 1999, average life expectancy 
in the U.S. increased from 66.9 to 74.1 years for men and from 73.5 to 
79.6 for women. Looking at individual counties, however, the researchers 
found that beginning in the 1980s, the best-off counties continued to 
improve but there was a stagnation or worsening of life expectancy in 
the worst-off counties--what the researchers refer to as “the reversal 
of fortunes.” As a result, while men in the best-off counties lived 9.0 
years longer than those in the worst-off counties in 1983, by 1999 that 
gap had increased to 11.0 years; for women the 1983 life expectancy gap 
of 6.7 years increased to 7.5 years by 1999. Over the past few decades, 
life expectancy in high-income countries around the world has gradually 
risen, with few exceptions.

Given the consistent trend of declining mortality rates in high-income 
countries, the results of this study, which show large segments of the 
American population experiencing stagnating or worsening health 
conditions, are particularly troubling. Ezzati said, “The finding that 
4% of the male population and 19% of the female population experienced 
either decline or stagnation in mortality is a major public health 
concern.” Christopher Murray, Director of the Institute for Health 
Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington and co-author of 
the study, added that “life expectancy decline is something that has 
traditionally been considered a sign that the health and social systems 
have failed, as has been the case in parts of Africa and Eastern Europe. 
The fact that is happening to a large number of Americans should be a 
sign that the U.S. health system needs serious rethinking.”

The researchers also analyzed data on deaths from different diseases and 
showed that the stagnation and worsening mortality was primarily a 
result of an increase in diabetes, cancers and chronic obstructive 
pulmonary disease, combined with a slowdown or halt in improvements in 
cardiovascular mortality. An increase in HIV/AIDS and homicides also 
played a role for men, but not for women.

The diseases that are responsible for this troubling trend seem to be 
most related to smoking, high blood pressure, and obesity. “Smoking and 
blood pressure have a long history of being controlled through both 
personal and population strategies. There is good evidence on relatively 
low-cost and effective ways of dealing with these issues if one of the 
health system’s imperatives becomes to close this widening life 
expectancy gap,” said Ezzati.

Source: Harvard School of Public Health

More information about the extropy-chat mailing list