Average life expectancy is falling in many parts of the United States and for many demographic groups, most notably women, according to a study being published Wednesday in the journal Population Health Metrics, and conducted by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington in Seattle.
The results of the study are particularly striking in terms of women’s health. One quarter of all US counties saw an actual reduction in life expectancy for women between 1997 and 2007, meaning that girls born today are expected to live shorter lives than their mothers. As the Los Angeles Times wrote, “For life expectancy to decline in a developed nation is rare. Setbacks on this scale have not been seen in the U.S. since the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918, according to demographers.”
This trend has accelerated over the past two decades. From 1987 to 1997, there were 314 counties out of more than 3,000 with either a loss of female life expectancy or no growth in it. From 1997 to 2007, there were 860 counties in which that was the case, compared to only 84 counties where male life expectancy decreased or stagnated.
These 860 counties form a broad swath across Appalachia (parts of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina) and the entire rural South, from the Carolinas to north Texas, as well as portions of the border states, including 82 percent of all counties in Oklahoma, 66 percent in Tennessee, and 59 percent in Kentucky.
In Mississippi, long the poorest and most unhealthy state, there are five counties where life expectancy for women is the same as that in Honduras, El Salvador and Peru, among the most impoverished countries in Latin America. Madison County, Mississippi, just north of Jackson, saw a staggering drop of two and a half years of life expectancy for women in just the past decade.
For one county in Mississippi, male life expectancy, for whites and blacks combined, was lower than the average male life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa. For five Mississippi counties, male life expectancy was the equivalent of the Philippines and Brazil.
The report, entitled “Falling behind: life expectancy in US counties from 2000 to 2007 in an international context,” compared life expectancy data for 3,138 U.S. counties and 10 cities with a previous survey from 1987 to 1997.
US life expectancy over a 20-year period, 1987-2007, continued to rise in absolute terms, up 4.3 years for men and 2.4 years for women, in large part because of declining rates of smoking and improvements in medical technology. But the United States lagged behind other industrialized countries, falling from 20th in the world in terms of life expectancy in 1987 to 37th in 2007.
The “falling behind” spoken of in the title of the study is particularly pronounced when data on the United States is compared with equivalent data from the 10 nations with the highest life expectancy. The 10 countries, 7 in western Europe, include Iceland, Switzerland, Sweden, Japan, Australia, Norway, Canada, Spain, France and the Netherlands.