Widening Gap in U.S. Life Expectancy

Map of life expectancies

Caption: Life expectancy at birth by county, 2014. Life expectancy into 80s (blue), 70s (green, yellow, orange), 60s (red).

Americans are living longer than ever before, thanks in large part to NIH-supported research. But a new, heavily publicized study shows that recent gains in longevity aren’t being enjoyed equally in all corners of the United States. In fact, depending on where you live in this great country, life expectancy can vary more than 20 years—a surprisingly wide gap that has widened significantly in recent decades.

Researchers attribute this disturbing gap to a variety of social and economic influences, as well as differences in modifiable behavioral and lifestyle factors, such as obesity, inactivity, and tobacco use. The findings serve as a sobering reminder that, despite the considerable progress made possible by biomedical science, more research is needed to figure out better ways of addressing health disparities and improving life expectancy for all Americans.

In the new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, a research team, partially funded by NIH, found that the average American baby born in 2014 can expect to live to about age 79 [1]. That’s up from a national average of about 73 in 1980 and around 68 in 1950. However, babies born in 2014 in remote Oglala Lakota County, SD, home to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, can expect to live only about 66 years. That’s in stark contrast to a child born about 400 miles away in Summit County, CO, where life expectancy at birth now exceeds age 86.

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Can You Spot The Health Risk?

Photo of a woman using a cookstove.

Woman cooking. India. Photo Credit: Curt Carnemark / World Bank

Nearly 3 billion people in the developing world—almost half the global population—cook food and heat their homes with traditional indoor cookstoves or open fires.

Toxic emissions from these indoor cooking fires cause low birth weights among babies; pneumonia in young children; and heart and lung problems in adults. All told, more than 2 million people die prematurely every year as a result of poorly ventilated indoor cooking fires, such as this one in India.

At the NIH, our research efforts focus on reducing the impact of existing cookstoves, while evaluating new, cleaner technologies to improve human health.