American Life Expectancy Drops for the First Time in Two Decades


For the first time since 1993, the average life expectancy of people in the United States has declined, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

An American born in 2015 is expected to live to 78.8 years old — which is down from a 79.9-year life expectancy in 2014.

Flickr Image Courtesy: Fran Urbano, CC BY-SA 2.0
Flickr Image Courtesy: Fran Urbano, CC BY-SA 2.0

Following Word War II, life expectancy has slowly increased due to medical advances, better nutrition educations and public health initiatives. Life expectancy declined in 1993 due to the AIDS epidemic, and in 1980 during a particularly bad flu season.

However, there were no epidemics or disease outbreaks in 2015 — rather the death rates for eight out of the 10 leading causes of death in the United States increased.

“This is a big deal,” Philip Morgan, a demographer at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill who was not involved in the new analysis told NPR. “There’s not a better indicator of well-being than life expectancy. The fact that it’s leveling off in the U.S. is a striking finding.”

Deaths caused by heart disease, lung diseases, unintentional injuries, strokes, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, kidney disease and suicide have all increased.

Some experts, like S. Jay Olshanksy, a University of Illinois-Chicago public health researcher, suspect obesity, which is big factor in death from heart disease and diabetes, may be partially to blame.

Olshansky also noted the impact of rising number of drug overdoses and suicide on the overall death rate. Drug overdose deaths rose by 11 percent, driven by increases in deaths from heroin, prescription pills and other opioids.

“There are a lot of things happening at the same time,” Olshansky said.

Despite the 2015 dip, women still have longer life expectancies than men. The average life expectancy for women fell from 81.3 to 81.2 years, whereas the average life expectancy for men fell from 76.5 to 76.3, according to the CDC.

The CDC report, which was mostly based on death certificates, also categorized the death rates by population.

Death rates increased for black men, white men, white women and a bit more for both Hispanic men and women. It did not, however, change for black women.

“The troubling trends are most pronounced for the people who are the most disadvantaged,” Jennifer Karas Montez, a Syracuse University researcher who studies adult death patterns told ABC. ”But if we don’t know why life expectancy is decreasing for some groups, we can’t be confident that it won’t start declining for others.”

The report did not provide a geographic breakdown of the deaths in 2015. It also did not show the analysis of death based on education or income. Other recent research has shown death rates going up for poor people, specifically impoverished white people in rural areas.

Danielle Tarasiuk

Danielle Tarasiuk is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published on, Yahoo! Sports, KCET, and NPR-affiliate stations KPCC and KCRW. She’s a proud Sarah Lawrence College and USC Annenberg alumn.