U.S. life expectancy increases slightly, report says

Liz Seegert

About Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert (@lseegert), is AHCJ’s topic editor on aging. Her work has appeared in NextAvenue.com, Journal of Active Aging, Cancer Today, Kaiser Health News, the Connecticut Health I-Team and other outlets. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement at George Washington University and co-produces the HealthCetera podcast.

Photo: Thomas Cizauskas via Flickr

There was some good news in January’s National Center for Health Statistics data brief: People in the U.S. are living slightly longer thanks to fewer deaths from opioid overdoses and other leading causes such as heart disease and cancer. It’s the first increase in life expectancy since 2014.

However, the U.S. still lags behind other industrialized countries, even though we spend more on health care than anyone else. Average life expectancy for someone born in the U.S. in 2018 is now 78.6 years, up 0.1 percent (about one month) since 2017. It is 80.8 years in other OECD nations, which spend an average of 8.8 percent of GDP on health care, compared to 16.9 percent in the U.S.

“The United States is continuing to fall behind similarly wealthy countries — a phenomenon that experts refer to as the U.S. “health disadvantage,” as the Washington Post reported,

Both men and women saw slight gains in longevity, with women living an average of 81.2 years in 2018 and men an average of 76.2 years (compared to 81.1 and 76.1 respectively in 2017). Adults who live until age 65 can expect to live another 19.5 years, on average.

The age-adjusted death rates decreased by 1.1 percent, from 731.9 deaths per 100,000 in 2017 to 723.6 in 2018. This includes reduced rates among older adults, 65-75, 75-84 and 85 and over.

Cancer death rates also have decreased for the second consecutive year, as Dan Goldberg and Brianna Ehley wrote in Politico, as did rates for heart disease, chronic respiratory disease, stroke, and Alzheimer’s. But deaths from pneumonia and influenza (P&I) increased by 4.2 percent in 2018, a worrisome statistic for older people. In a separate report, CDC data showed that pneumonia and flu activity remained high in late January and has not yet peaked. During the week ending January 18, 2020, 6.7 percent of the deaths were due to P&I, below the epidemic threshold of 7.2 percent for that period.

While the slight increase in longevity is a positive sign, it doesn’t mean people in the U.S. are healthier than elsewhere. A new Commonwealth Fund report found that those in the U.S. use more medical technology, and pay more for it, than those in other high-income countries, like New Zealand, Norway, France or Germany. But our outcomes are worse than other comparable nations. The U.S. also has the highest burden of chronic disease and “an obesity rate that is two times higher than the OECD average” it said. The nation also has higher obesity rates, more preventable hospitalizations and the highest rate of avoidable deaths. The suicide rate, while declining, also is the highest among OECD nations.

Race plays a role in death rates, according to the report: “Average life expectancy among non-Hispanic black Americans is 3.5 years lower than for non-Hispanic whites. Life expectancy for Hispanic Americans is higher than for whites and similar to that in the Netherlands, New Zealand and Canada.”

One bright spot is preventive care: rates of breast cancer screening among women 50 and older are among the highest, as are rates of vaccinations for flu and pneumonia.

Journalists may want to contact their local or state health department to ask about flu and pneumonia-related hospitalizations and deaths:

  • What trends are they seeing?
  • Why are P&I death rates rising?
  • What about preventable hospitalizations — are more older people being hospitalized for issues that could be addressed through better prevention or social services?
  • A demographic not featured in the CDC report are those 55 to 64. Are the disease or death rates for that age group increasing or decreasing?

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