Longevity

Lane Kenworthy, The Good Society
July 2016

Most of us would like a long life. Longevity isn’t necessarily the best indicator of health, but it’s surely among the ones we care about most. Our chief measure of longevity is life expectancy — the average number of years of life expected among the population.

Americans’ life expectancy is high and rising, which is good news. But three aspects of the longevity story in the United States are less encouraging. First, given our affluence and our heavy spending on healthcare, Americans’ life expectancy is surprisingly low compared to other rich nations, and it has risen very little. Second, the gap in longevity between Americans with more and less income has widened in recent decades. Third, since 1999 the death rate for middle-aged whites has increased.

LIFE EXPECTANCY IN THE US IS HIGH AND RISING

As figure 1 shows, life expectancy in the United States increased from 50 years in 1900 to 70 years in 1960 to just shy of 80 years in 2014. This near-doubling in a little more than a century is remarkable. And while the pace at which life expectancy rises has slowed, the rise has continued.

Figure 1. Life expectancy
Years of life expectancy at birth. Data source: Centers for Disease Control, National Center for Health Statistics, National Vital Statistics Reports.

Figure 2 shows trends over the past several decades in the ten most significant sources of death prior to age 75. We’ve made a good bit of progress in reducing premature mortality by the biggest sources — heart disease, cancer, and accidents — as well as by lung disease, stroke, and homicide.

Figure 2. Potential years of life lost prior to age 75
Per 100,000 population. Age-adjusted data. Data source: National Center for Health Statistics, Health, United States, 2015, table 18.

AMERICANS DON’T LIVE AS LONG AS THEY SHOULD

As a country gets richer, its citizens tend to live longer.1 Apart from oil-rich Norway, the United States is the most affluent of the world’s longstanding-democratic nations.2 Yet when it comes to length of life, we fare poorly compared to these other nations. As figure 3 shows, as recently as 1980 we were in the middle of the pack among this group. Since, then, however, life expectancy for Americans has increased at a slower pace than in any other rich nation, and as of 2013 (the most recent year of comparable data) we stood last in line, with a life expectancy more than a year below that of the next-lowest country.

Figure 3. Life expectancy
Years of life expectancy at birth. The vertical axis doesn’t begin at zero. Data source: OECD. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.

Our low life expectancy is particularly startling given how much money we spend on healthcare. Figure 4 shows that healthcare expenditures as a share of national income (GDP) are far higher in the US than in any other rich democratic country, and they’ve increased the most over the past half century. Yet our longevity has increased the least.

Figure 4. Life expectancy by health expenditures
The data points are years, from 1970 to 2013. The lines are loess curves. Life expectancy: years at birth. Health expenditures: public plus private, as a share of GDP. Data source: OECD. The other countries are Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

It isn’t clear what accounts for this. The United States is in the middle of the pack for most of the main causes of death, including cancer, heart disease, and accidents, and our improvement in recent decades has been on par with that of most other rich nations.3 Cigarette smoking has decreased as rapidly as in most other countries, from 42% of American adults in 1965 to 17% in 2014.4 Suicide, a significant and underappreciated cause of death, hasn’t declined; but that’s true in many other rich nations too, and our suicide rate is about average among those countries.5 Our homicide rate is much higher than that of other affluent countries, but it has decreased more rapidly than in most others.6 Obesity is more common in the US than in any other rich nation, and it has increased quite rapidly, but analysts aren’t sure how much this contributes to premature death.7

What is clear is that, in terms of longevity, Americans tend to get comparatively little bang for their buck.

NARROWING AND WIDENING LONGEVITY GAPS

Race has long been among America’s most pronounced, and most troubling, axes of inequality, and that’s as true for longevity as for other aspects of well-being. At the beginning of the twentieth century, African Americans lived, on average, about fifteen years less than whites.8 This gap diminished over the course of the century. As figure 5 shows, in 1980 it was seven years. By 2014 it had decreased to four years — about the same as the gap between the US and Japan (figure 3 above). Deaths from most major sources have been falling faster among black Americans than among whites.9

Figure 5. Life expectancy by race
Years of life expectancy at birth. The vertical axis doesn’t begin at zero. Data source: Centers for Disease Control, National Center for Health Statistics, Health, United States, 2015, figure 18.

Longevity also differs by income, and here the gap has been growing over time rather than shrinking. Figure 6 shows the trend since 1980 in life expectancy by income group (for males at age 50). Americans in the top two income quintiles have seen significant gains in life expectancy, while those in the bottom two haven’t. In 1980 the gap between Americans in the top quintile and those in the bottom was five years. By 2010 it had jumped to thirteen years.

Figure 6. Life expectancy by income
Years of life expectancy for males at age 50. The vertical axis doesn’t begin at zero. Data source: Ronald Lee et al, The Growing Gap in Life Expectancy by Income, National Academies Press, 2015, figure 3-2.

It isn’t a surprise that people with more income tend to live longer than those with less. Income is correlated with a variety of health behaviors that matter for longevity: higher-income individuals are less likely to smoke, they tend to have better diets, and they exercise more. They also tend to experience less stress. The quantity and quality of medical services to which people have access also varies by income.10

What’s less clear is whether, and how much, these differences have increased over the past generation, and what effect that has had on the income gap in longevity.11 The rate of smoking has fallen less rapidly among lower-income Americans than among those with higher incomes.12 The income disparity in medical care very likely has increased; between 1980 and 2010 the share of Americans without health insurance increased, and most of those lacking insurance have low to moderate income.13 Differences in healthcare provision between more-affluent urban areas and poorer rural areas appear to have widened. And the gap in income itself has grown, though mostly between those at the very top and everyone else.14 Yet not all health determinants have diverged according to income. While lower-income Americans are more likely to be overweight or obese than those with higher incomes, the income gap in obesity actually has shrunk in recent decades.15

THE DEATH RATE FOR MIDDLE-AGED WHITES HAS INCREASED

Death rates have been falling over time. Although the rate of decrease has varied across countries and groups, all have experienced an absolute improvement. Around 1999, however, the fall in mortality reversed course among middle-aged whites in the United States. Figure 7 shows data from a paper by Anne Case and Angus Deaton published in 2015 that first brought this to public attention.16 During the 1990s the death rate for non-Hispanic white Americans aged 45-54 fell, as it did for similarly-aged persons in other affluent nations and for Hispanics in the US. But then, at the end of the 1990s, it began to rise (slowly), and that rise continued for the remainder of the period shown in the chart. A similar but weaker shift occurred among 35-to-44-year-olds and 55-to-59-year-olds.17

Figure 7. Death rate among middle-aged non-Hispanic whites and seven comparison groups
Deaths per 100,000 persons. Age 55-64. Data source: Anne Case and Angus Deaton, “Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife among White Non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st Century,” PNAS, 2015, figure 1. “Asl” is Australia.

Case and Deaton find that the death rate from many key sources, such as heart disease and cancer, continued to decline. But beginning in the late 1990s this was offset by a large increase in mortality due to accidental poisoning, and to a lesser extent to suicide and liver disease.18

Why did this happen? One hypothesis points to rising economic insecurity. For middle-aged whites, particularly those with limited education, the period since the turn of the century has featured stagnant or falling employment, wages, and household income.19

However, economic insecurity seems unlikely to have been a significant contributor, for a number of reasons.20 Trends in wages, household incomes, and economic security in the US were about the same from 1979 to 1995 as they were in the 2000s.21 Yet the death rate for middle-aged whites increased only in the latter period, not in the former.

Around 80% of middle-aged whites are homeowners. From 1999 to 2006, the first half of the period in which the white mortality rate increased, home values appreciated rapidly. So even though many were experiencing job insecurity and wage and income stagnation, quite a few also enjoyed a significant increase in wealth.22 Yet the rise in the death rate among middle-aged whites was, if anything, faster during this period than in the period of falling home prices after 2006.

The Great Recession of 2008-09 increased economic insecurity among middle-aged whites. Employment rates dropped, and household incomes shrank.23 Yet there was no acceleration in the increase in middle-aged white deaths.

Whites, African Americans, and Hispanics have experienced similar trends in wages, household incomes, and income instability since the late 1990s.24 But while the death rate among the middle-aged has risen for whites, it has fallen sharply for blacks and Hispanics.

Men and women have experienced similar trends in wages since the late 1990s.25 But as Andrew Gelman has found, the middle-aged white death rate has increased  more for women than for men.26

Finally, trends in household income and in income instability since the late 1990s vary a good bit across the US states.27 Yet Case and Deaton report a rise in self-assessed poor health (correlated with mortality) among middle-aged whites in all 50 states.

A second hypothesis focuses on the reference groups that shape people’s perception of their economic well-being. Andrew Cherlin explains the reasoning28:

“When whites without college degrees look back, they can often remember fathers who were sustained by the booming industrial economy of postwar America. Since then, however, the industrial job market has slowed significantly. The hourly wages of male high school graduates declined by 14 percent from 1973 to 2012, according to analysis of data from the Economic Policy Institute. Although high school educated white women haven’t experienced the same major reversal of the job market, they may look at their husbands — or, if they are single, to the men they choose not to marry — and reason that life was better when they were growing up.

“African-Americans, however, didn’t get a fair share of the blue-collar prosperity of the postwar period. They may look back to a time when discrimination deprived their parents of equal opportunities. Many Hispanics may look back to the lower standard of living their parents experienced in their countries of origin. Whites are likely to compare themselves to a reference group that leads them to feel worse off. Blacks and Hispanics compare themselves to reference groups that may make them feel better off.”

This hypothesis too doesn’t square well with the data. Since the mid-1990s, the General Social Survey has asked a question about how people perceive their own standard of living compared to their parents’ standard of living when they were a similar age. Figure 8 shows the share of whites and the share of African Americans responding that their standard of living is much worse or somewhat worse than their parents’. (This survey doesn’t separate out Hispanics.) Following Cherlin’s lead, I include only persons aged 25-54 and without a college degree.29 If the reference group hypothesis is correct, we would expect to see a divergence between the two racial groups beginning around 1999. Instead, whites and blacks were quite similar until 2010, long after the divergence in mortality commenced.

Figure 8. My standard of living is worse than my parents’
Aged 25 to 54, with less than a four-year college degree. Question: “Compared to your parents when they were the age you are now, do you think your own standard of living now is much better, somewhat better, about the same, somewhat worse, or much worse than theirs was?” The lines show the share responding much worse or somewhat worse. Data source: General Social Survey, sda.berkeley.edu, series parsol.

The explanation that best fits the evidence focuses on white Americans’ growing use of opioid pain relievers. These pain relievers — oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl — became increasingly available via prescription beginning in the late 1990s. Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, the most popular of these drugs, aggressively marketed it to primary care physicians and hospitals, urging them to prescribe it more frequently and in larger quantities. As opioid pain relievers became more widely available in a nonstigmatized (prescription) form, more Americans began to use them. Because opioids are addictive, more people got hooked and became regular users. Some overdosed on the pain reliever itself, some created a toxic mix by combining it with another drug (such as a sleep aid), and some switched to heroin and eventually overdosed on that.30

As noted earlier, the chief source of the rise in mortality among middle-aged whites is an increase in accidental poisonings.

The timing fits. Prescriptions issued for opioid pain relievers increased gradually in the 1990s and then doubled from 1999 to the peak in 2011. Sales of opioid prescription drugs quadrupled from 1999 to 2014. As figure 9 shows, overdose deaths involving prescription opioids quadrupled between 2000 and 2014, and as their rise slowed around 2010, heroin overdose deaths shot up.31

Figure 9. Deaths from prescription opioid overdose and heroin overdose
Deaths per 100,000 persons. Data source: Wilson M. Compton, Christopher M. Jones, and Grant T. Baldwin, “Relationship between Nonmedical Prescription-Opioid Use and Heroin Use,” New England Journal of Medicine, 2016, using CDC data.

This explanation helps to account for the racial difference. Though we don’t have good information about the over-time trends, 5% of whites report nonmedical use of prescription pain relievers in the past year, versus 3% of blacks, and overdose deaths involving prescription opioids are more common among whites than among blacks or Latinos.32

This hypothesis also helps to account for the fact that the death rate has increased more for women than for men. Women are more likely to have chronic pain, to be prescribed prescription pain relievers, to be given higher doses, and to use them for lengthier periods than men. And women tend to become dependent on prescription pain relievers more quickly than men.33

The limited available cross-country data also are consistent with the opioid pain reliever hypothesis. Figure 10 shows the over-time trend in the death rate from accidental poisoning in the rich nations. The rise in the United States beginning around 1999 stands out (along with Ireland and Norway). Middle-aged whites in the US would stand out even more; the poisoning death rate among whites aged 45-54, for instance, jumped from 8 per 100,000 in 1999 to 30 in 2013.34

Figure 10. Deaths from accidental poisoning
Deaths per 100,000 persons. Data source: OECD.

Was there some deeper underlying cause of middle-aged whites’ turn to opioid pain relievers? Not necessarily. Lots of Americans experience pain. On average, we have nine surgeries during our lives.35 One in four each year experience back or neck pain significant enough to see a doctor for help, and two in three will at some point in their life.36 One in ten has kidney stones.37 In this context, the growing availability of opioid pain relievers in a nonstigmatized form (prescription pills), coupled with their addictiveness, may have been enough to launch the epidemic.

SUMMARY

Life expectancy in the United States has increased significantly over the past century, due to reductions in many of the major sources of premature death. Yet given our national affluence and heavy spending on healthcare, Americans’ life expectancy is surprisingly low — the lowest among the world’s rich democratic nations — and it has increased comparatively little over the past generation. We don’t have a good explanation for why.

There’s a sizable gap in longevity between white and black Americans, but it has shrunk considerably in recent decades. The gap between Americans with more and less income, by contrast, has increased. Here too scientists haven’t yet figured out the main determinant(s).

Since 1999, the death rate among middle-aged whites has increased, in contrast to that of African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and similarly-aged persons in most other affluent countries. The growing availability of opioid pain relievers appears to be the chief cause.


  1. Hans Rosling, “200 Years, 200 Countries, 4 Minutes,” Gapminder; OECD, Health at a Glance, 2015, ch. 3. 
  2. Lane Kenworthy, “America Is Exceptional … and Ordinary,” The Good Society. 
  3. OECD, Health at a Glance, 2015, ch. 3. 
  4. Centers for Disease Control, National Center for Health Statistics, Health, United States, 2015, table 47, using National Health Interview Survey data; OECD, Health at a Glance, 2015, figure 4.1. 
  5. OECD, Health at a Glance, 2015, ch. 3. 
  6. Lane Kenworthy, “Safety,” The Good Society. 
  7. Lane Kenworthy, “Weight Moderation,” The Good Society. 
  8. Centers for Disease Control, National Center for Health Statistics, “United States Life Tables, 2011,” National Vital Statistics Reports, 2015, table 19. 
  9. National Center for Health Statistics, “Special Feature on Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities,” Health, United States, 2015; Sabrina Tavernise, “Blacks See Gains in Life Expectancy,” New York Times 2016. 
  10. Michael Marmot, The Health Gap, Bloomsbury Press, 2015. 
  11. Beth C. Truesdale and Christopher Jencks, “The Health Effects of Income Inequality: Averages and Disparities,” Annual Review of Sociology, 2016. See also Congressional Budget Office, “Growing Disparities in Life Expectancy,” Economic and Budget Issue Brief, 2008; Christopher Jencks, “The Poor Die Young: What’s Killing Them?,” unpublished, 2009; S. Jay Olshansky et al, “Differences in Life Expectancy Due to Race and Educational Differences Are Widening, and Many May Not Catch Up,” Health Affairs, 2012; Annie Lowrey, “Income Gap, Meet the Longevity Gap,” New York Times, 2014. 
  12. Ronald Lee et al, The Growing Gap in Life Expectancy by Income, National Academies Press, 2015, figure 3-6, using National Health Interview Survey data. 
  13. Lane Kenworthy, “Stable Income and Expenses,” The Good Society. 
  14. Lane Kenworthy, “Income Inequality,” The Good Society. 
  15. Lane Kenworthy, “Weight Moderation,” The Good Society. 
  16. Anne Case and Angus Deaton, “Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife among White Non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st Century,” PNAS, 2015. 
  17. Case and Deaton, “Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife”; Andrew Gelman, “Death Rates Have Been Increasing for Middle-Aged White Women, Decreasing for Men,” Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, 2015. 
  18. Case and Deaton, “Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife,” figure 2. 
  19. Case and Deaton, “Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife”; Nick Bunker, “Rising US Mortality and Its Potential Economic Causes,” 2015; Josh Zumbrun, “The Economic Roots of the Climbing Death Rate for Middle-Aged Whites,” Wall Street Journal, 2015. 
  20. Lane Kenworthy, “Is Economic Insecurity to Blame for the Increase in Deaths among Middle-Aged Whites?,” Consider the Evidence, 2015. 
  21. Lane Kenworthy, “A Decent and Rising Income Floor,” The Good Society; Kenworthy, “Shared Prosperity,” The Good Society; Kenworthy, “Stable Income and Expenses,The Good Society. 
  22. Lane Kenworthy, “Wealth Inequality,” The Good Society. 
  23. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey”; Economic Policy Institute, “Median Family Income,” The State of Working America. 
  24. Economic Policy Institute, “Hourly Wage Growth by Gender and Race/Ethnicity,” The State of Working America; Economic Policy Institute, “Median Family Income,” The State of Working America; Jacob S. Hacker, Gregory A. Huber, Austin Nichols, Philipp Rehm, Mark Schlesinger, Rob Valletta, and Stuart Craig, “The Economic Security Index: A New Measure for Research and Policy Analysis,” Review of Income and Wealth, 2013. 
  25. Economic Policy Institute, “Hourly Wages by Wage Percentile, Gender, and Education,” The State of Working America. 
  26. Gelman, “Death Rates Have Been Increasing for Middle-Aged White Women, Decreasing for Men.” 
  27. Census Bureau, “Median Household Income by State”; Economic Security Index, Institution for Social and Policy Studies, Yale University. 
  28. Andrew Cherlin, “Why Are White Death Rates Rising?,” New York Times, 2016. 
  29. Cherlin, “Why Are White Death Rates Rising?” 
  30. Daniel J. McGraw, “How Big Pharma Gave America Its Heroin Problem,” Pacific Standard, 2015; David A. Kessler, “The Opioid Epidemic We Failed to Foresee,” New York Times, 2016; Harriet Ryan, Lisa Girion, and Scott Glover, “‘You Want a Description of Hell?’ OxyContin’s 12-Hour Problem,” Los Angeles Times, 2016. 
  31. Nora M. Volkow, “America’s Addition to Opioids,” Senate testimony, 2014; Centers for Disease Control, “Prescription Opioid Overdose Data”; American Society of Addiction Medicine, “Opioid Addiction: 2016 Facts and Figures”; Wilson M. Compton, Christopher M. Jones, and Grant T. Baldwin, “Relationship between Nonmedical Prescription-Opioid Use and Heroin Use,” New England Journal of Medicine, 2016. 
  32. Centers for Disease Control, “Prescription Opioid Overdose Data”; American Society of Addiction Medicine, “Opioid Addiction: 2016 Facts and Figures”; Abby Goodnough, “How Race Plays a Role in Patients’ Pain Treatment,” New York Times, 2016. 
  33. Centers for Disease Control, “Prescription Painkiller Overdoses: A Growing Epidemic, Especially Among Women,” 2013. 
  34. Case and Deaton, “Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife,” figure 2. 
  35. Peter Lee, Scott Regenbogen, and Atul A. Gawande, “How Many Surgical Procedures Will Americans Experience in an Average Lifetime? Evidence from Three States,” American College of Surgeons-Massachusetts Chapter. 
  36. Gallup, “One in Four Adults Sought Care for Neck/Back Pain Last Year,” 2016. 
  37. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, National Institutes of Health, “Kidney Disease Statistics for the United States.”