The Shocking Facts You Need to Know about Life Expectancy in the U.S.

life expectancy in us

According to a recent Commonwealth Fund report, The U.S. spends more on healthcare than other wealthy countries, yet has a lower life expectancy overall compared with countries like Switzerland, Norway, France, and Sweden. In the 1980s, the U.S. was on par with other countries as far as life expectancy, but since then has dropped off, gaining only 4.9 years while other countries gained 7.8 years.  

Life expectancy rose slightly for the first time since 2014 in 2018, largely due to a decrease in cancer deaths and drug overdose deaths. Opioid overdose deaths have caused nearly 500,000 deaths in the U.S. since the late 1990s. Recent efforts have been made to reduce the opioid epidemic, including opioid addiction medications, clean needles, and the drug naloxone that can be used to save a life during an opioid overdose. The opioid overdose drop could also be due to more restrictions on prescribing prescription pain medications, which were being massively overprescribed

Despite this, rates of overdose are increasing for certain drugs, such as fentanyl, cocaine, and methamphetamine. The increases in death rates due to drugs are largely happening in four states — Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Indiana. 

Cancer deaths

The death rate by cancer dropped 2.2 percent in 2018, largely due to the declining rate of lung cancer, the leading cause of cancer deaths. The decline is due to a decrease in smoking and advances in treatment. 

Factors that are keeping the mortality rate relatively high in the U.S. are a death rate from the flu and pneumonia (4 percent increase), as well as suicide (1.4 percent increase) and nutritional deficiencies. 

The numbers

For 2018, life expectancy at birth is 78.7 years, up from 78.6 in 2017. In 2014, the life expectancy was 78.9 years. The overall average life expectancy of the 36 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is a little over 80 years.

The 10 leading causes of death in the U.S. are:

  • Heart disease 
  • Cancer 
  • Unintentional injuries (including drug overdose) 
  • Chronic lower respiratory disease
  • Stroke
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Diabetes
  • Flu/pneumonia 
  • Kidney disease 
  • Suicide


“There’s a tendency to think of health statistics in terms of healthcare, but health is about more than the healthcare system. Policymakers must recognize that the decisions they’re making about jobs, education and infrastructure investments, are health policies and have consequences not only to pocketbooks but to life expectancy,” said Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The coronavirus pandemic will likely change the data for life expectancy, but only temporarily.

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