Life Expectancy

Jun 30, 2023, 08:58 AM by Dr. Sally Robinson

What is life expectancy? What does it mean and what we can predict for our own lives and that of our children? Life expectancy is a statistic based on age at death of groups, separated by nationality, gender, or other defining characteristics.  Small dogs live longer than big dogs. It is a prediction of the age a person born in a particular year would be expected to live if things did not change over their lifetime. 

Bill Bryson discusses this in his book, The Body.  He explains that the life expectancy of American men born in 1900 was 46 years but that doesn’t mean that most 46 year old men keeled over.  Life expectancies were short because so many children died in infancy and that dragged the average down. If a person got past childhood, a person had a reasonable chance of living to old age.  In 1950, 216 children in every thousand, nearly a quarter, died before age 5.  Thanks to antibiotics and vaccines the figure has dropped to a rarity.  In 1921, America had about 200,000 cases of diphtheria and, with vaccination, by 1980 there were 3 cases.

In 1900 the leading causes of death were from infectious disease and today they are heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease, diabetes, stroke, accidents.  This isn’t necessarily because there is more heart disease but because other things used to kill people first.  Foege and McGinnis wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association that the leading causes of death were really a result of other factors such as smoking, poor diet, illicit drug use and other behaviors that are not noted on death certificates.

Another issue found in looking at world life expectancy tables is that it is helpful to be rich.  Bryson says that if you are middle-aged, exceptionally well off and from almost any high-income nation you are likely to live into your 80’s.  However an identical person but poor who exercises, eats healthily but has less money in the bank can expect to die 10-15 years younger.

If being poor is bad, being an American may be worse.  A middle-aged American’s risk of dying is more than double that of a person picked at random in Uppsala or Stockholm or Linkoping.  These health problems begin at birth and go right on through life.  Children in the United States are 70% more likely to die in childhood that children in the rest of the wealthy world.  America is at or near the bottom for virtually every measure of medical well-being: homicide, teenage pregnancies, chronic disease (obesity), drugs, depression and now gun related deaths. Data from the 2019 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey reports the prevalence of severe obesity in youth at 7.9%. 

Life expectancy has be getting shorter in the US not longer.  Do you think the life expectancy of American young people will be getting longer or shorter?

by Sally Robinson, MD Clinical Professor
Keeping Kids Healthy

Published 6/2023

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