NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 23, 2008

Life expectancy has long been growing steadily for most Americans, but it has not for a significant minority, according to a new study published in the online journal PLoS, which finds a growing disparity in mortality depending on race, income and geography.

Other major findings:

  • Although life span has generally increased since 1961, it began to level off or even decline in the 1980s for 4 percent of men and 19 percent of women.
  • The researchers also compared the 2.5 percent of counties with the lowest life expectancies and the 2.5 percent with the highest; the disparity between those two groups rose to 11 years for men in 1999, from 9 years in 1983, and to 7.5 years from 6.7 in women.


  • From 1961 to 1983, there was little difference in average income for the counties where life expectancy rose at rates above and below the mean, according to the researchers; but after 1983, life span rose with wealth.
  • Race may also be a factor; in counties where life expectancy declined, the proportion of African-Americans was higher.

This lack of progress among the worst off was caused by a slowing or halt of reductions in cardiovascular disease, combined with increases in lung cancer and diabetes for women and in H.I.V. infection and homicide for men, say the researchers.

This rise in mortality for chronic diseases runs counter to trends in other developed countries, and the geographical differences are consistent with regional trends in smoking, high blood pressure and obesity.  Data after 1999 will show more decreases in life span for the worst-off women, speculates Dr. Majid Ezzati, professor at Harvard University.  He expects to see a slight increase for men, with improved treatment for H.I.V. and AIDS.

Source: Nicholas Bakalar, "Life Expectancy is Declining is Some Pockets of the Country," New York Time, April 22, 2008; based upon: Majid Ezzati et al., "The Reversal of Fortunes: Trends in County Mortality and Cross-County Mortality Disparities in the United States," PLoS, April 21, 2008.

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