America’s Waning Life Expectancy

The gap in life expectancy between Americans and residents of other high-income countries continues to widen.

Read Time: 2 minutes


In a country known for its pursuit of happiness, perhaps we’ve stopped pursuing health. Americans are now living an average of 76.3 years. That’s over 9 years less than Hong Kong residents who live to 85.5 years, on average. The gap in life expectancy between Americans and residents of other high-income countries continues to widen.

Steven Woolf aimed to understand how the U.S. life expectancy gap came to be over time. He examined nearly a century of data from national and international mortality databases to track the evolution of life expectancies across nations.

Graph A (below) shows that while U.S. life expectancy once rose steadily, its growth started to slow down in the mid-20th century. By 2010, it had plateaued following the Great Recession, a situation further worsened by the opioid epidemic. The sharp decline in the last years of the graph illustrates the dramatic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on life expectancy—the most substantial decrease in a century.

Graph B (above) illustrates the widening gap in life expectancy between the U.S. and the top-performing countries, as well as the U.S.’s declining global rank. The bars represent the increasing difference in life expectancy between the U.S. and others each year, revealing a widening gap over time. Simultaneously, the upward-moving dotted line shows where the U.S. ranks among populous countries in life expectancy, deteriorating over time to reach 46th by 2020. This combination of a widening gap and worsening global standing highlights the deepening health disadvantage faced by Americans compared to our peers, even as other nations continue to make steady gains.

The recent decline in American life expectancy has many causes: COVID-19, but also other critical health issues like drug overdoses, alcohol misuse, obesity, and an increase in suicides, particularly among middle-aged adults. Addressing these challenges requires policy interventions that expand access to mental health services and improve social safety nets to provide better societal support.

Databyte via Steven H. Woolf. Falling Behind: The Growing Gap in Life Expectancy Between the United States and Other Countries, 1933-2021. American Journal of Public Health, 2023.