University of Washington School of Public Health

UW SPH News: Americans living longer, but gains could be better

Americans living longer, but gains could be better


Longevity map

First, the good news: Americans are living longer.

Men on average now live to 76.2 years while women live to 81.3. That was a gain of 4.6 years for men over the last 20 years, and a gain of 2.7 years for women.

The bad news? Women's life spans are improving at a much slower pace than men's. And in hundreds of counties across the US, the life spans of women are actually decreasing.

This was a surprise to researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which looked at life spans by gender, race and county from 1989 to 2009.

"We spend more on health care than anybody else in the world," said Dr. Ali Mokdad, head of the research team that analyzed the data. Many women will be living shorter lives than their mothers, he noted.

When compared to life span gains in other countries, Mokdad said, "We're not doing as good." He pointed to Australia, which he said has done a "wonderful job" improving life spans. Australians now live as long as Japanese, he said.

Ninety percent of US counties had a life expectancy rate less than Greece's, while 87 percent of counties fell below Cuba's. People in more than a fifth of all US counties live less than the average Syrian, according to the IHME data.

In King County, Wash., the gains in life expectancy were greater than most counties. For men it was 5.5 years (79.2) and for women it was 3.4 years (83.2). The greatest gains in the state came in Island County, where men experienced an increase of 7.2 years (80.9) and women 4.8 years (84.1)

Mokdad, a professor of global health and adjunct professor of epidemiology and health services at the UW School of Public Health, said the biggest factors in life expectancy are preventable causes of death, including tobacco, obesity and alcohol. Others are high blood pressure and high cholesterol, conditions that women were statistically less likely to treat than men.

"Women don't do as good as they could in controlling these factors," Mokdad said. Simply reducing the amount of salt they consume could save about 54,000 women's lives each year, he said.

Other data showed that life expectancy for black Americans – both men and women – is improving at a faster rate than for white Americans, especially in large urban areas in New York and California. Mokdad credited progressive health policies, such as bans on smoking.

Black men are living 7.4 years longer on average than they were two decades ago, while black women are living 4.7 years longer.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation is an independent global health research center at the UW.

For more, check out the IHME's infographics: