UNEQUAL OPPORTUNITY

You can lose 20 years of life expectancy just by being born in the wrong place in America

The good news for Americans: life expectancy in the US increased more than five years from 1980 to 2014, up to 79.1 years. The bad news for Americans: your actual life expectancy could vary by more than 20 years depending on where in the US you happened to be born.

University of Washington researchers reported in a study published (paywall) today (May 8) that the life expectancy from birth in the US varies from 67 years in Oglala Lakota County, South Dakota to 87 years in Summit County, Colorado. Counties with lower life expectancies tended to have higher rates of health conditions like obesity and diabetes, higher poverty rates, and higher proportions of minority residents.

“Looking at life expectancy on a national level masks the massive differences that exist at the local level, especially in a country as diverse as the US,” Laura Dwyer-Lindgren, a public researcher at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington and co-author of the paper, said in a statement.

The team looked at anonymized death certificates from the National Center for Health Statistics for the 24-year period to calculate how long people all over the US live. Life expectancy grew in most counties, based on population estimates from surveys including the US Census Bureau and the Human Mortality Database. Notably, though, in 13 counties—the majority in Kentucky—life span actually decreased. These changes were at most just a couple of years (Owsley County, Kentucky had the largest decrease at 3% from about 72 to 70 years), but this effectively means that children born in these counties would likely have shorter lives than their parents.

Of the 10 of the counties with the largest increase in life expectancy, four are in Alaska. The highest was along the Aleutians islands along the coast, with an 18.3% increase in longevity, from 70 years to 83 years. The authors credit this to the fact that previously, people in these areas died much younger than in the rest of the country. Even now, the majority of Alaska has a life expectancy of around 75 years, still below the national average.

Globally, the US ranks 42nd in average life expectancy; Monaco has the longest, at 89.5 years, and Japan and Singapore tied for second with an average longevity of 85 years. The US spends over $9,000 on health care per patient per year, whereas Japan spends less than half of that.

You can view an interactive of the data here.

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