Why US Life Expectancy Is Shorter Than Other Peer Countries

COVID-19 shook up the world for several years, so it shouldn't be too much of a surprise to see a dip in life expectancy. After all, the virus claimed the lives of more than a million people in the United States alone (via Statista). According to a 2022 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), life expectancy declined to 76.4 years in 2021 from 77 in 2020. COVID, heart disease, and cancer were the leading causes of death in both these years.

Although you'd think that the life expectancy in other countries would see similar dips during COVID, they weren't as pronounced as in the United States. According to Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker, life expectancy between 2019 and 2021 dropped by just .2 years on average in other countries (such as Australia, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom), compared to the 2.7-year drop in the United States. Yet even before COVID, life expectancy in the United States had been falling behind other countries since the 1970s — even though it spends four times more on healthcare than its peers, according to Our World in Data. Researchers suggest that several factors that contribute to premature death (such as smoking, obesity, opioid overdoses, and a high infant mortality rate) could point to shorter life expectancies in the United States.

Young people are dying earlier

The American Medical Association said it was concerned about the CDC's report showing a two-year decline in life expectancy in the United States. It pointed out that mortality increased more among people in the 25 to 35 age groups, and the 35 to 44 age group saw the largest increases in mortality, which can decrease life expectancy. The younger people were dying from COVID and accidental deaths from overdoses. According to Our World in Data, deaths from opioid overdoses have been on the rise since the early 2000s — but they have skyrocketed in the United States.

Even though sales of cigarettes have been on the decline since the 1980s worldwide, the United States still leads other countries such as Germany, Austria, Spain, and Sweden in deaths attributed to smoking. With more than one-third of people in the United States being obese, the United States also leads the world in the rate of death due to obesity. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity can increase your risk of heart disease, some cancers, stroke, and diabetes.

Big discrepancies for some populations

A 2023 report from The Commonwealth Fund also compared health in the United States compared to other countries. Since the study began collecting data in 2000, the United States leads the world in preventable deaths. Preventable refers to deaths that could be avoided if people followed a healthy diet and exercise program and participated in regular health screenings. Compared to other countries, infants are more likely to die after birth and pregnant women suffer more fatal complications during pregnancy and childbirth. Deaths from assault, particularly gun violence, are seven times higher in the United States than in most other countries.

The report also found that life expectancy among non-Hispanic Black and non-Hispanic American Indians was significantly lower than the U.S. average. This suggests there are health disparities among different groups. Our World in Data said that even though the average income in the United States is much higher than in the rest of the world, there is a significant income discrepancy between the rich and the poor. The poorest 1% of the United States has a 14.6-year shorter lifespan than the richest 1%.