Mississippi Has The Lowest Life Expectancy. Here's Why

COVID-19 and its strain on health systems hit the world pretty hard, claiming almost 15 million lives from January 2020 to the end of 2021, according to the United Nations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the United States saw more than 350,000 deaths in 2020 alone, making it the third leading cause of death that year. It's not surprising to know that nationwide, life expectancy dropped by two years in 2020 due to both COVID and drug overdoses (via Harvard Medical School).

However, not all states had the same drop in life expectancy, according to a 2022 report from the National Center for Health Statistics. New York, which became the first epicenter of COVID-19, saw a three-year drop in life expectancy from 2019 to 2020. Still, New York's life expectancy was higher than Mississippi's. Mississippi's life expectancy was 71.9 in 2020, which was the lowest in the United States.

The report doesn't explain why Mississippi had the lowest life expectancy in the United States, but public health researchers say that public health policies that affect marginalized groups affect life expectancy (per the University of Southern California). States with more conservative health policies can see up to two years lower life expectancies than those with more liberal health policies.

State health policies can affect life expectancy

Overall, life expectancy has been declining in the United States since 2014. Yet the differences between states have been becoming wider since 1984, according to a 2020 article in Public Policy & Aging Report. Residents in some states are living longer while those in other states are not. States in the Deep South not only have a shorter life expectancy but also have a fewer number of years living a healthy life.

These differences among states in life expectancies can partially be attributed to shifting healthcare responsibilities from the federal government to state governments. Some states like Minnesota invest more in education, support Medicaid expansion, adopt more laws to reduce firearm injury, and have higher excise taxes on cigarettes. In contrast, Mississippi spends fewer dollars on education and makes it more difficult to access affordable healthcare. As a result, people living in Minnesota can expect to live longer and have a lower risk of disability as they age. Among people 65 to 74 years old, 20.7% of people living in Minnesota have a disability compared to 39.2% of people in Mississippi.

Health systems make a difference

A 2023 report by The Commonwealth Fund looked at the overall quality of health systems in different states, looking at factors such as healthcare access, cost of health care, reproductive and women's health, and health outcomes. Overall, Massachusetts scored the highest, and Mississippi fared the lowest. While all states experienced an increase in avoidable, premature deaths during the COVID era, Mississippi had the highest per capita. Avoidable, premature deaths also include gun-related deaths and deaths from treatable, chronic diseases.

The Deep South also fared the worst in terms of women dying during pregnancy or within a year of childbirth. Although significant racial disparities exist with maternal mortality, Mississippi had the highest rate at 50.3 deaths per 100,000 live births. The report pointed out that 12 of the states that had the lowest reproductive health outcomes for women also had more restrictive laws on abortion.

The report suggested that all of the United States could improve their health systems in several ways such as promoting primary care and behavioral health, supporting affordable reproductive healthcare, and providing more options for affordable health insurance.

Prevalence of chronic disease can affect life expectancy

Cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and asthma also threaten the lives of many Americans. According to Shadac, more than one-third of people living in West Virginia are living with one of these three chronic conditions. Mississippi is seventh lowest in the United States at 28.4%. The national average is 25.3%.

Some people live with more than one chronic condition such as arthritis, depression, obesity, or high blood pressure, according to a 2020 article in PLoS One. Mississippi ranks seventh on this measure with 57% of its population. The most prevalent chronic condition pairs are high cholesterol and high blood pressure, but obesity and high blood pressure are the most prevalent comorbidities in adults 18 to 44. West Virginia, Arkansas, and Alabama are the bottom three states with more than 60% of their populations living with multiple chronic conditions. The District of Columbia had the lowest percentage of its population living with comorbidities at 37.9%.