NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


September 12, 2006

America is divided by vast differences in life expectancy, a "longevity gap" that can't be readily explained by race, income or access to health care, a study reported Monday.

In fact, when viewed through the prism of life expectancy, there are eight Americas, with decades separating groups consisting of millions of people, report Harvard's Christopher Murray and colleagues in the journal PloS Medicine.

Murray's team examined state and county life expectancies, the risk of death from specific diseases, health insurance and access to health care for major population groups from 1980 to 2001.

  • They found that life expectancy differences are driven mainly by chronic diseases in young and middle-aged adults.
  • Income, infant mortality, violence and HIV/AIDS, which now responds to drugs, played less of a role.

Among long-lived people 15 to 44, the death toll from chronic disease was as low as among the Japanese.  The profile for the group with the shortest life span resembles Russia.  "Where we fall down is delivering health care for young and middle-aged adults," Murray says.

  • The longest living group, "America One," consists of 10.4 million Asians, with an average life expectancy of 85, say the researchers; that's 27 years longer than the average 58-year life expectancy of Native Americans in South Dakota.
  • The second group, "America Two," indicates that income isn't the key to a longer life span; this group is made up of 3.6 million low-income whites living in Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa, Montana and Nebraska, with an average life expectancy of 79.

Jonathan Skinner of Dartmouth says much of the variation depends on such individual factors as diet, exercise and smoking, not health care.

Source: Steve Sternberg, "How long you live depends on which USA you live in; Income, health care not always the best predictor, study says," USA Today, September 12, 2006.


Browse more articles on Health Issues