Updated: Apr 11
Life expectancy in the United States fell again, from 77.0 years in 2020 to 76.1 years in 2021, according to a recent report from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). Even worse, life expectancy has declined by a total of 2.7 years since 2019 (pre-pandemic).
Should you be worried? The answer depends on who you are, since your life expectancy depends on your gender, race, educational achievement, income and wealth, access to medical care, and whether you’re living a healthy lifestyle.
Let’s unpack the results and dig into the contributing factors.
Understanding Life Expectancies
The headlines from the NCHS report show the life expectancy at birth, which is a common way to measure the overall health and longevity of a large population. However, if you’re a pre-retiree or retiree, you shouldn’t be concerned about this life expectancy when it comes to your retirement planning. The reason is that if you’ve survived to your 50s, 60s, or more, you’re in a much more exclusive group, having survived to your current age. The number you should be interested in is your remaining life expectancy.
Buried in the NCHS report is a table that shows remaining life expectancies at various ages as of 2021. For example, 65-year-olds can expect to live 18.3 more years to age 83. This result is for both genders combined, which leads to the first focus of differentiation. If you’re a 65-year-old woman, you can expect to live 19.6 more years, almost to age 85. A 65-year-old man can expect to live just 16.9 more years, almost to age 82.
Race is the next focus of differentiation in the NCHS report. Non-Hispanic Asians came in at the top of the list, with a remaining life expectancy at age 65 of 21.9 more years for both genders combined. Hispanics rank next highest with a remaining life expectancy of 19.3 years, followed by Non-Hispanic Whites at 18.3 years, non-Hispanic Blacks at 16.5 years, and Non-Hispanic American Indians and Alaska Natives at 16.3 years.
One More Important Thing
There’s another key thing to understand about life expectancies that isn’t discussed in the NCHS report: They’re just averages, they’re not your destiny. Your actual lifespan can vary substantially from the averages based on several factors. For example, longevity calculators typically show that there could be a roughly one in four chance that you’d pass away seven years before your projected life expectancy, and another one in four chance that you’d live six years longer. Because of the possible variance on the high side, to be safe it’s a good idea to assume you’ll live well beyond the average life expectancy when planning your retirement.
Why Did Life Expectancies Decline?
It should come as no surprise that the most significant reason that life expectancies declined is the COVID pandemic. Other reasons for the increase in death rates cited by the NCHS report include unintentional injuries, heart disease, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, and suicide.
What’s interesting to note is that many other reports on longevity in the U.S show increased life expectancies attributable to higher levels of wealth and income and higher educational attainment, with corresponding decreases in life expectancies at lower ends of the economic spectrum and educational attainment.
There’s not much you can do about your gender and race. And at this point, if you’re at an age where you’re either a pre-retiree or retiree, your educational attainment, income, and wealth are pretty-well established.
However, there’s plenty you can do to increase the odds of living long and well. The Stanford Center on Longevity reports that increased longevity is most realistic for those who adopt healthy behaviors, such as eating nutritious food, exercising, getting sufficient sleep, avoiding unhealthy behaviors such as smoking and substance abuse, preventing obesity, and building a supportive network of friends and family.
Who Should—And Shouldn’t—Be Worried?
It’s likely that the reasons for the decreased life expectancies reported by the NCHS don’t apply to you if you’ve survived the pandemic with your health intact, received all your vaccinations and boosters, and have adopted the healthy behaviors noted above. On the other hand, you might fall into the group with lower life expectancies if you’re still refusing vaccinations and haven’t adopted most of the healthy behaviors noted above.
One final note: U.S. life expectancies, no matter who they’re reported by, are well below most Western European and Asian nations in spite of the U.S. spending much more per capita on healthcare. That result should worry government and business policymakers.
In the meantime, take as many healthful steps as possible to live long and prosper.