Why Is Our Life Expectancy Declining and How Might We Fix It?

We are just starting the decade of the 2020s and already we are seeing a level of turmoil rivaling the dramatic social, economic and political changes seen in the roaring ’20s a century ago. With mass media at the ready, we are bombarded with news about the killer opioid crisis, the lingering COVID-19 pandemic, which is now turning into a possible tripledemic, and a growing recognition of social isolation and other mental health issues that have placed a heavy burden on older adults and their families.

In the past, despite the problems du jour, there was typically a steady march toward increased life expectancy in the United States. As a society we proudly touted the successes of medicine, public health, access to healthcare, rising living standards, and improved lifestyles and education as influencing the length and quality of life.

Yet, we are facing a national reckoning—the early warnings of a plateauing of life expectancy at birth have recently turned into a sustained two-year downward turn for the first time in a century. Life expectancy at birth is a demographic term reflecting the average number of years a newborn could be expected to live if they were to experience the age-specific death rates prevailing during a specific period throughout their life. Certainly, the excess mortality associated with the COVID-19 pandemic led to excess deaths and an overall decline in life expectancy in recent years. But so did a burgeoning of other social and health problems such as accidents/unintentional injuries, heart disease, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, and suicide.

The decline in life expectancy is not constant across all groups but reflects underlying social vulnerabilities and targets for intervention.

As indicated by a recent CDC report, this decline is not constant across all groups but reflects underlying social vulnerabilities and targets for intervention. For example, there have been declines for men and women, but the declines have been greater for men, resulting in a widening gender gap with women’s life expectancy now 79.1 years compared to men’s life expectancy of 73.2 years.

Similarly, one’s affiliation with a particular ethnic or racial group has different consequences. While from 2019 to 2021 the non-Hispanic White population and non-Hispanic Asian population saw modest declines in life expectancy (e.g., about two years), the non-Hispanic American Indian/Alaskan Native population, the non-Hispanic Black population, and the Hispanic population saw much larger aggregate declines from four to six years. One positive trend was noted, however, which is the life expectancy gap between the Black and White populations is narrowing.

Potential Strategies to Reverse the Trend

What are some specific strategies that can be undertaken to increase life expectancy—at birth as well as at an older age? While life expectancy at age 65 has increased on average from the 1960s to 2020, there are also recent drops in how long someone who is already age 65 can expect to live, with women likely to live about 19.8 years longer and men about 17 years longer. Interestingly, there are many overlaps in the factors associated with life expectancy at any age, pointing again to the importance of medical innovation and public health infrastructure.

The big question is whether our life expectancy will continue to drop, plateau off, or begin to increase again. On the negative side, the United States has much lower life expectancy rates than other comparable high-income countries. This suggests that more equal access to healthcare and safety net provisions across the life course might be important. On the positive side, Healthy People 2030 goals target reducing health disparities and improving access to preventive and curative treatments.

Additionally, professional associations have started campaigns to reframe aging, which is likely to lead to a better quality of life as well as the overall length of life. As an example, one of the core strategic priorities of the American Society on Aging is to address ageism by reframing the conversation about aging and older people. This will go a long way to counter institutional, interpersonal and internal ageism, which has been associated with myriad negative health effects. These activities are in line with the U.N. Decade of Healthy Aging (2021–30) where four action areas are relevant globally and particularly in the United States: combating ageism, promoting age-friendly environments, providing access to integrated care, and supporting good quality long-term care.

We are definitely living in tumultuous times with declining life expectancies. However, this does not need to be our destiny. As we approach the new year, we should rethink challenges as opportunities. As a society, we should pay more attention to ensuring access to quality healthcare, shoring up our public health infrastructure, addressing social determinants of health, and reframing aging so that there is value to and respect for each stage of life. Let’s hope that the current ’20s will roar in positive change, with accommodations to the growing number of older Americans expected this decade.

Marcia G. Ory, PhD, MPH, is a Regents and Distinguished Professor, principal faculty in the newly created Center for Community Health & Aging, and co-chair of the Opioid Task Force at the Texas A&M School of Public Health in College Station, Texas.