Why Life Expectancy in the U.S. is Shorter Than Other Countries and What You Can Do About It
Dr. Josh Axe
Apr 16, 2018

We can keep spending our hard-earned money on pharmaceuticals, procedures and testing, but if we don’t change the day-to-day habits that affect our health and take a deeper look at what’s not working in the U.S., it won’t matter much.

Did you know that the U.S. is spending nearly twice as much on health care than other developed, high-income countries, but we have a lower life expectancy?

Recent research conducted by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Harvard Global Health Institute and the London School of Economics indicates that although U.S. citizens are paying much more than our peer countries on things like prescription drugs, diagnostic tests, physician’s salaries and administrative costs, our average life expectancy in the U.S. is still years lower than 10 high-income countries, including the U.K., France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, Australia, Japan and Canada. (1)

So what’s to blame for the shorter life expectancy rates in the United States? Well, evidence shows that the U.S. is at a health disadvantage, despite our hefty spending on healthcare. Researchers are pointing to social factors, like higher poverty rates and inadequate social services in the U.S. compared to other developed countries. Plus, lifestyle choices play a major role in our lower life expectancy rates.

Maybe we need to take some advice from the happiness study that suggests that social connections and good relationships can boost our happiness and health. Or we can take a look at the blue zones, where the life expectancy is up to 100 years.

We can keep spending our hard-earned money on pharmaceuticals, procedures and testing, but if we don’t change the day-to-day habits that affect our health and take a deeper look at what’s not working in the U.S., it won’t matter much.

What Is Life Expectancy?

“Life expectancy” refers to the number of years that a person can expect to live based on a statistical average. This number is estimated by evaluating the average age of death among people of the same population, and it will vary from geographical area and era.

To determine the life expectancy of a particular group or population, researchers must track a group of people that were born in the same year and indicate the average age-at-death in order to predict the mortality rate. But the tricky part is that life expectancy rates also take into account observed improvements in mortality, so researchers must be able to project death rates for future years as well. (2)

Life expectancy depends on a particular person or population’s access to healthcare, lifestyle choices, dietary choices and economic status, but it’s certainly not set in stone and actually changes throughout the course of your life.

Life expectancy is the average age that a person will die, which means that most people aren’t going to live exactly that long. Some will die earlier and some will live later than the predicted life expectancy, but it gives us an idea of a certain population’s health. Plus, once you’ve hit a certain age, your life expectancy is expected to be higher. For instance, the life expectancy of a 30-year-old adult may be a few years less than the life expectancy of an adult over the age of 65 because he or she has already lived through years that are associated with risk factors.

Life Expectancy in the U.S. vs. Other Countries

The March 2018 report published in JAMA found that life expectancy in the U.S. was the lowest of all 11 high-income countries included in the research, such as the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Sweden and the Netherlands. Life expectancy in the U.S. was 78.8 years, while the life expectancy range in our peer countries was between 80.7 and 83.9 years. (3)

According to a report published by the National Academy of Sciences, among other high-income countries, the U.S. has had the first or second lowest probability of surviving to the age of 50. Plus, Americans who do reach the age of 50 are usually in poorer health and face greater morbidity and mortality from chronic diseases than older adults of peer countries. This is generally due to risk factors that arise earlier in life, like obesity, diabetes and smoking. (4)

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