The Slatest

U.S. Life Expectancy Declines for First Time in 23 Years

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters, pictured on Oct. 13, 2014, in Atlanta.

Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American life expectancy has declined for the first time since 1993 and could be on the verge of plateauing. From ABC News:

In most of the years since World War II, life expectancy in the U.S. has inched up, thanks to medical advances, public health campaigns and better nutrition and education.

But last year it slipped, an exceedingly rare event in a year that did not include a major disease outbreak. Other one-year declines occurred in 1993, when the nation was in the throes of the AIDS epidemic, and 1980, the result of an especially nasty flu season.


In 2015, rates for 8 of the 10 leading causes of death rose. Even more troubling to health experts: the U.S. seems to be settling into a trend of no improvement at all.


This is a big deal. “There’s not a better indicator of well-being than life expectancy,” demographer Philip Morgan told NPR. The CDC’s new preliminary data show that the average American born in 2015 can expect to live about 78 years and 9 months—roughly a month shorter than an American born in 2014. One of the culprits is rising death rates for certain common conditions including heart disease and strokes. But some researchers are also pointing to upticks in suicides and drug use—particularly among poorer white Americans—as potentially contributing factors. “Clearly, that could be related to the economic circumstances that many Americans have experienced in the last eight years, or so, since the recession,” University of Pennsylvania sociologist Irma Elo told NPR.


In a January, the Atlantic’s Olga Khazan detailed a report from the Commonwealth Fund on rising mortality among white Americans:

By digging through CDC data, they saw that the reason death rates failed to decline as expected was not entirely due to suicide and substance abuse. Although those factors explained about 40 percent of the gap, the rest was attributable to the leading causes of death—things like heart disease, diabetes, and respiratory disease. Though there are still fewer people dying from those diseases than there were in the 1960s, according to this analysis, the rate of decline has slowed.


That means not only are middle-aged white people drinking more, using more opioids, and killing themselves at higher rates, more of them are getting sick with the diseases that usually kill older people. And when they do get sick, they don’t get better.

In other words, economic conditions may also be dragging down life expectancy by putting health care adequate enough to prevent and treat more common diseases out of reach for more people.

“The troubling trends are most pronounced for the people who are the most disadvantaged,” Syracuse University’s Jennifer Karas Montez told ABC on Thursday.