Skip to content

    50+: Live Better, Longer

    Font Size

    Death Gap: Life Expectancy Falls for Some

    Analysis Shows Life Expectancy in U.S. Down or Stagnant for 1 in 5 Women, 1 in 20 Men
    WebMD Health News

    April 21, 2008 -- Call it the death gap. Some Americans are living longer than ever before. But many aren't just missing out on increased life expectancy, they're dying sooner.

    How many? For one in five U.S. women and one in 20 U.S. men, life expectancy is either sinking or stagnant. Most of these women and men live in the Deep South, along the Mississippi river and down into the Delta, or in Appalachia extending into the southern part of the Midwest and into Texas.

    The findings come from a county-by-county analysis of life-expectancy data for every year between 1961 and 1999 (the latest year for which data was available) by Harvard researcher Majid Ezzati, PhD, and colleagues.

    "In the U.S., people like to say that the rising tide lifts everybody, just some more than others," Ezzati tells WebMD. "But there are many Americans not being lifted by the tide, and some are actually sinking below it."

    The study shows that from 1961 to 1983, no county in America had a decline in life expectancy. By 1983, life expectancy for most Americans was tightly clustered around the national average. After that time, a death gap opened -- and widened.

    "Something happened in the '80s and health disparities started going up," Ezzati says. "The part we weren't expecting was not just that some people stopped getting better, but that some got worse off -- whereas the better-off continued to get better."

    Before 1983, life expectancy gains occurred for all Americans, regardless of income, and cross-county disparities declined. This broad improvement was due to major reductions in death due to heart and vascular disease.

    After 1983, many counties continued to show improvement, while others saw a stagnation or even decline in life expectancy. In general, greater income meant greater life expectancy, but income wasn't the whole story. Ezzati says his team previously found that low-income white men in the northern plains states lived several years longer than did low-income white men in Appalachian states. Accounting for race did not appear to influence the findings either.

    "This tells us the problem is something about how health policy and public health systems are functioning in different parts of the country, apart from the economic or racial disparities," he says.

    Today on WebMD

    Eating for a longer, healthier life.
    woman biking
    How to stay vital in your 50s and beyond.
    womans finger tied with string
    Learn how we remember, and why we forget.
    smiling after car mishap
    9 things no one tells you about getting older.
    fast healthy snack ideas
    how healthy is your mouth
    dog on couch
    doctor holding syringe
    champagne toast
    Two women wearing white leotards back to back
    Man feeding woman
    two senior women laughing