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Life Expectancy and Mortality Rates in the United States, 1959-2017

Educational Objective
To understand risk factors for premature mortality.
1 Credit CME

Importance  US life expectancy has not kept pace with that of other wealthy countries and is now decreasing.

Objective  To examine vital statistics and review the history of changes in US life expectancy and increasing mortality rates; and to identify potential contributing factors, drawing insights from current literature and an analysis of state-level trends.

Evidence  Life expectancy data for 1959-2016 and cause-specific mortality rates for 1999-2017 were obtained from the US Mortality Database and CDC WONDER, respectively. The analysis focused on midlife deaths (ages 25-64 years), stratified by sex, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and geography (including the 50 states). Published research from January 1990 through August 2019 that examined relevant mortality trends and potential contributory factors was examined.

Findings  Between 1959 and 2016, US life expectancy increased from 69.9 years to 78.9 years but declined for 3 consecutive years after 2014. The recent decrease in US life expectancy culminated a period of increasing cause-specific mortality among adults aged 25 to 64 years that began in the 1990s, ultimately producing an increase in all-cause mortality that began in 2010. During 2010-2017, midlife all-cause mortality rates increased from 328.5 deaths/100 000 to 348.2 deaths/100 000. By 2014, midlife mortality was increasing across all racial groups, caused by drug overdoses, alcohol abuse, suicides, and a diverse list of organ system diseases. The largest relative increases in midlife mortality rates occurred in New England (New Hampshire, 23.3%; Maine, 20.7%; Vermont, 19.9%) and the Ohio Valley (West Virginia, 23.0%; Ohio, 21.6%; Indiana, 14.8%; Kentucky, 14.7%). The increase in midlife mortality during 2010-2017 was associated with an estimated 33 307 excess US deaths, 32.8% of which occurred in 4 Ohio Valley states.

Conclusions and Relevance  US life expectancy increased for most of the past 60 years, but the rate of increase slowed over time and life expectancy decreased after 2014. A major contributor has been an increase in mortality from specific causes (eg, drug overdoses, suicides, organ system diseases) among young and middle-aged adults of all racial groups, with an onset as early as the 1990s and with the largest relative increases occurring in the Ohio Valley and New England. The implications for public health and the economy are substantial, making it vital to understand the underlying causes.

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Article Information

Corresponding Author: Steven H. Woolf, MD, MPH, Center on Society and Health, Department of Family Medicine and Population Health, Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, 830 E Main St, Ste 5035, Richmond, VA 23298-0212 (

Accepted for Publication: October 21, 2019.

Author Contributions: Dr Woolf had full access to all of the data in the study and takes responsibility for the integrity of the data and the accuracy of the data analysis.

Concept and design: Woolf, Schoomaker.

Acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data: Woolf, Schoomaker.

Drafting of the manuscript: Woolf, Schoomaker.

Critical revision of the manuscript for important intellectual content: Woolf.

Statistical analysis: Woolf, Schoomaker.

Administrative, technical, or material support: Woolf, Schoomaker.

Supervision: Woolf.

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.

Funding/Support: This project was partially funded by grant R01AG055481-03 from the National Institute on Aging.

Role of the Funder/Sponsor: The National Institute on Aging had no role in the design and conduct of the study; collection, management, analysis, and interpretation of the data; preparation, review, or approval of the manuscript; and decision to submit the manuscript for publication.

Additional Contributions: We thank Latoya Hill, MPH (Center on Society and Health, Virginia Commonwealth School of Medicine), and Christine M. Orndahl, BS (Department of Biostatistics, Virginia Commonwealth School of Medicine), for sharing their expertise with the Joinpoint Regression Program and for their extensive assistance with data analysis and mapping. These individuals did not receive compensation for their contributions.

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