Life-Expectancy in the U.S., 1900-2014

by Don Boudreaux on June 4, 2016

in Health, Standard of Living

Update below.

This report in the Washington Post prompted me to look at these 2015 Centers for Disease Control data on life-expectancy in the United States.  (Specifically, here I looked at Table 15 on page 95.)

From 1900 through 1950, life-expectancy at birth in the U.S. rose by an average of 5 months in each of those 50 years.  Below are the yearly averages for each of the six full decades since 1950:

1951-1960: 1.8 months of increased life-expectancy, on average, in each of these ten years

1961-1970: 1.3 months per-year average increase in life-expectancy

1971-1980: 3.5 months per-year average increase in life-expectancy

1981-1990: 2.0 months per-year average increase in life-expectancy

1991-2000: 1.7 months per-year average increase in life-expectancy

2001-2010: 2.3 months per-year average increase in life-expectancy

From 2011 through 2014, life-expectancy at birth in the U.S. rose only from 78.7 to 78.8 years.  This 0.1 increase over four years means that, if this decade’s pace doesn’t change, the figure for 2011-2020 will be a meager 0.30 months per year.

So what to make of the above figures?  (I recognize that slicing and dicing data in this way – that is, per conventionally reckoned decade – might possibly point to conclusions different from conclusions that would be pointed to if the data were sliced and diced differently.  But following the CDC’s own practice – and following also common conventions – I’ll stick here with the convention of using conventionally reckoned decades.)

First and most obviously, from 1900 – the year of my paternal grandfather’s birth in Louisiana – through 2014, the first 50 years of that period saw, on average and compared to the period since, much faster improvements in life expectancy in the U.S.

No surprise there, I think.  But perhaps this fact should be more surprising because antibiotics did not start to be widely used until the very end of this period.  Yet this period was, despite the Great Depression and two world wars, one of enormous economic growth as well as of advances in the application of medical science.  Economic growth makes people healthier by reducing malnutrition as well as by better supplying ordinary people with the means of protecting themselves and their children from many of the sources of filth (think “night soil”) and hazards (think of the way that women did laundry in 1900) that were common for our ancestors.  This was also a period in the U.S., I note, before Medicaid, Medicare, OHSA, the EPA, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the ADA, the NSF (created in 1950), the Kefauver Amendment that expanded the FDA’s power, and LBJ’s ‘Great Society’ expansion of some, and creation of other, government-welfare programs.

Second, the commonly told tale of middle-class stagnation has it that ordinary Americans’ standard of living stopped improving in the mid-1970s.  Insofar as changes in average at-birth life-expectancy track changes in living standards – and surely they do, at least somewhat – the data from the 1970s through 2010 fit poorly with that stagnation tale.  The decade of the 1970s itself seems to have been excellent not only for the quality of its rock’n’roll but also for its happy effect on life-expectancy.  Of all the decades since the 1940s until today, the 1970s witnessed the largest average annual increase in the U.S. of at-birth life-expectancy.

And of all the completed decades since the 1940s the one that witnessed the least improvement in Americans’ average annual at-birth life-expectancy was the 1960s – a decade fabled for its the spectacular growth that it bestowed on ordinary Americans.  Two other decades famous for economic prosperity – the 1950s and 1990s – each are rather middlin’ on the life-expectancy-improvement scale.

Compared to the 1950s and the 1960s and the 1990s, the 1980s do reasonably well on the life-expectancy scale, and the first decade of this century does better still.  The impressive per-year average increase in life-expectancy for the decade 2001-2010 is evidence against the stagnation thesis.

But oh my, what to make of the current – 2011-2014 – poor pace in the improvement of at-birth life-expectancy?  Perhaps four years is too small a sample of a decade; that is, perhaps taking a consecutive-four-year sample from each of the other decades would, in many cases, yield a similarly low projection of that decade’s actual improvement in life-expectancy.

I honestly do not believe that any firm conclusions can or should be drawn from this 0.30-month-improvement-per-year projection for the current decade, but I will note my surprise that for this decade’s average annual rate of improvement to reach the average of that of the previous six decades (which is 2.1 months per year), the six years 2015 through 2020 would have to witness an average increase in life-expectancy of 3.3 months per year.  That is, the last six years of this decade would have to be comparable to the 1970s on this front.  (I suspect that such improvement will not happen.  And I believe that one of the reasons it will not happen is Obamacare.)


Here’s one other observations sparked by the Washington Post report: No one will look at these data and blame “discrimination” for the recent failure of the improvement in white life-expectancy to keep pace with the recent improvement in black life-expectancy.  And, of course, it is correct that no one will do so.  But I’d bet that, were these figures reversed – that is, had the rate of improvement in black life-expectancy been less than that of white life-expectancy – the mainstream media and hordes of pundits, preachers, popes, professors, and politicians would be pontificating self-righteously, blaming racism.

UPDATE: David Boaz, in a comment to this post, reminds me of this paper from last Fall by Anne Case and Angus Deaton.  I have not read this paper, although I recall the press attention that it received – for example, this write-up in the New York Times.  In this paper, Case and Deaton report their finding an increase in the mortality rate of poorly educated, middle-aged white Americans over the years 1999-2013.  Having not yet read the Case-Deaton paper I probably should say no more about it.  I’ll simply note that the increased mortality rate for these white Americans might well account for the poor performance in overall life-expectancy growth in the U.S. over the years 2011-2014, but because this unhappy trend dates back at least to 1999 – and because the years 2001-2010 were pretty good for improvements in life-expectancy for Americans as a whole – something else (if perhaps only statistical illusion) likely also likely contributes to the recored poor overall life-expectancy performance for the years 2011-2014.


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