Recent years have seen steady gains in life expectancy overall; the life expectancy at birth of black males, in particular, has markedly improved. However, disparities by gender, race, and income persist.
Life expectancy is a single measure used to take into account all the factors that contribute to a long life. Although many variables account for longevity, they cannot always be accounted for individually. While often used in reference to the elderly, a large portion of the increase in life expectancy over the last century is attributable to declines in childhood mortality. Overall, mortality rates for infants and for children older than age one fell considerably during the 20th century, due in large part to advances in medical technology, improved socioeconomic conditions, and progress in water and food safety and sanitation practices.1
Despite this progress, children in the United States have a shorter life expectancy than those in 29 other countries with populations of one million or more.2 Additionally, there are large differences in life expectancy by gender, race, education, and income—further evidence of room for improvement.3,4
Life expectancy for newborns has increased substantially over the past 70 years, from 57.7 years for infants born in 1930 to 78.7 years for babies born in 2011 (preliminary data). (Figure 1) It is estimated that 1.2 percent of children born in 2008 (the latest year for which such estimates are available) will die before they reach the age of 20, compared with 10.9 percent of children born in the early 1930s. (Figure 2, Appendix 2)
Differences by Gender
Females have a greater life expectancy at birth than do males, although the gender gap has narrowed since its peak in 1979, when men were expected to live an average of 70.0 years, and women an average of 77.8 years.5 In 2011 (preliminary data), the gender gap was 4.8 years, with men and women expected to live averages of 76.3 and 81.1 years, respectively. (Figure 3) Females are also less likely than males to die before reaching age 20 (1.0 versus 1.4 percent, respectively, in 2008, the latest year for which such estimates are available). (Figure 2) This gap between the percentage of males and females who died before age 20 widened between the early 1930s and the early 1990s;males born in those years were 16 and 35 percent more likely than females to die before age 20, respectively. Since then, the gap has narrowed, and in 2008 boys were 30 percent more likely to die young). (Appendix 2)
Differences by Race and Hispanic Origin6
Recent increases in life expectancy have been especially pronounced among black male infants, whose average life expectancy increased from 64.5 years in 1990 to 72.1 years in 2011 (preliminary estimate), following a slight decline in the late 1980s. (Figure 4) Some of this increase reflects declines in homicide rates among black males during the mid- and late 1990s. Despite these gains, however, black children are still almost twice as likely as white children to die before reaching age 20. Slightly more than two percent of black children born in 2008 (the latest year for which such estimates are available) were expected to die before reaching age 20, compared with just over one percent of white children born in the same year. Hispanic children have risks similar to those for white children. (Figure 2)
In addition to being more likely to survive to age 20, white infants also have longer total life expectancies than black infants. In 2011 (preliminary estimates), white newborns could be expected to live an average of 79.0 years, compared with 75.3 years for black newborns. However, this gap was the smallest ever recorded. (Figure 3)
State and Local Estimates
2007 data for states, Congressional Districts, and the ten most populous metro areas are available from the American Human Development Project, Mapping the Measure of America.
Life expectancy and survivorship to age 20 for infants born in the period 1999-2001, by state, are available in: Wei, R., Anderson, R. N., Curtin, L. R., Arias, E. (2012). U. S. decennial life tables for 1999-2001: State life tables. National Vital Statistics Reports, 60 (9). Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.
The Population Reference Bureau publishes life expectancy rates for most countries in its 2011 World Population Data Sheet.
Estimates of the healthy life expectancy (the number of years of life spent in good health) for each of the member states of the World Health Organization are available for the year 2007 from World Health Statistics 2010.
Through its Healthy People 2020 initiative, the federal government has set a number of national goals to increase life expectancy and improve the quality of life for individuals of all ages. More information is available here.
Infant, Child, and Teen Mortality
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, “Life expectancy is the average number of years of life remaining to a person at a particular age and is based on a given set of age-specific death rates, generally the mortality conditions existing in the period mentioned. Life expectancy may be determined by race, sex, or other characteristics using age-specific death rates for the population with that characteristic.”
More information is available here, see page 523.
Life expectancy data for 2010-2011: Hoyert, D. L., Xu, J. (2012). Deaths: Preliminary data for 2011. National Vital Statistics Reports, 61(6). Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. Available at: www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr61/nvsr61_06.pdf
Life expectancy data for 2000-2009: Kochanek, K. D., Xu, J., Murphy, S. L., Miniño, A. M., Kung, H.(2012). Deaths: Final data for 2009, National Vital Statistics Reports, 60(3). Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr60/nvsr60_03.pdf
Survivorship data for 2006: Arias E. (2010) United States life tables, 2006. National Vital Statistics Reports, 58(21). Hyattsville, Maryland: National Center for Health Statistics. Table B. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr58/nvsr58_21.pdf.
Survivorship data for 2007: Arias E. (2011) United States life tables, 2006. National Vital Statistics Reports, 59(9). Hyattsville, Maryland: National Center for Health Statistics. Table C. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr59/nvsr59_09.pdf.
Survivorship data for 2008: Arias E. (2012) United States life tables, 2008. National Vital Statistics Reports, 61(3). Hyattsville, Maryland: National Center for Health Statistics. Table C. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr61/nvsr61_03.pdf.
Life expectancy data for 1930-1999: Arias E. (2003) United States life tables, 2000. National Vital Statistics Reports, 51(3). Hyattsville, Maryland: National Center for Health Statistics. Tables 10 and 12. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr51/nvsr51_03.pdf
Survivorship data for 1929-2005: Arias E. (2010) United States life tables, 2005. National Vital Statistics Reports, 58(10). Hyattsville, Maryland: National Center for Health Statistics. Table 10. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr58/nvsr58_10.pdf.
Raw Data Source
Mortality Data, National Vital Statistics System
Recommended citation: Child Trends (2012). Life Expectancy. Retrieved from www.childtrendsdatabank.org/alphalist?q=node/84
Last update: November 2012
1Guyer, B., Freedman, M. A., Strobino, D. M., and Sondik, E. J. (2000). Annual summary of vital statistics: Trends in the health of Americans during the 20th century. Pediatrics, 106(6), 1307-1317.
2Population Reference Bureau. (2011) Life expectancy at birth, by gender, Datafinder Online Tool. Available at http://www.prb.org/DataFinder/Topic/Rankings.aspx?ind=6.
3U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Health, United States, 2011. With special focus on socio-economic disparities. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/hus11.pdf
4U.S. Congressional Budget Office. (2008). Growing disparities in life expectancy. CBO Economic and Budget Issue Brief, April 17, 2008. Retrieved from http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/91xx/doc9104/04-17-lifeexpectancy_brief.pdf
5Arias, E. (2007). United States life tables, 2004. National Vital Statistics Reports 56(9). Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr51/nvsr51_03.pdf. Table 12.
6Hispanics may be any race.