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10 Essential Facts About Life Expectancy
You can’t change your birthday, but a new calculator shows that choices you make every day may affect the number of years you’re likely to live.
By Mark Henricks
Medically Reviewed by Justin Laube, MD
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There's no crystal ball that can predict how long we'll live, but there are numbers out there that can serve as a guide.
“Life expectancy is the average number of years that a group of persons in a population is expected to live,” says Elizabeth Arias, PhD, leader of the statistical analysis research team in the mortality statistics branch of the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). Estimates of life expectancy derive from national averages, and the Social Security’s online calculator is one source of that data. The NCHS, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is another; its researchers use population counts and death certificates to create life-expectancy tables. “Its basic information is a death rate that comes from the actual number of deaths that occur in a particular year,” explains Dr. Arias.
Death rates and life expectancy vary from person to person, based on where you live, your age, gender, ethnicity, income, and other traits. But assuming that death rates remain constant, statisticians can calculate how long a person in a particular population may live. In addition to the Social Security calculator, a newer free online calculator created by Lyle Ungar, PhD, a computer science professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in Philadelphia, can generate customized life expectancy figures. Not only are these estimates individualized, but better yet, you can see the effect that certain risk factors will have on your predicted age at death.
In Dr. Ungar's calculator, users are asked to enter information on more than three dozen of their health habits — such as whether they smoke or wear a seat belt, and how many hours they sleep each night — and the calculator will provide an anticipated average age at death measured in tenths of a year. Keep in mind, too, that life expectancy is increasing as treatments for, and preventions of, major diseases improve. “If you're 95 now, things won't change that much before you die,” Ungar explains. “If you're 25, odds are that you're going to live a lot longer than a person in your parents’ or grandparents’ generation.”
And while you can’t change your birthday, you can adopt behaviors that are linked to longer life — and increase your life expectancy. “You can use that [risk information] for your own decision making,” says Scott Braithwaite, MD, professor of population health and medicine at New York University School of Medicine in New York City. For instance, smoking and shorter life expectancy have a strong correlation, so if you smoke, quitting could make a difference.
Based on what we know today, here are 10 essential facts about life expectancy and longevity:
1. U.S. life expectancy greatly increased over the last 100 years.
Today, for most people living in the United States, the typical lifespan is much longer than it was a few generations ago. “If you go back to 1900, average life expectancy was 49 years,” says Arias. “Now, it’s almost 79 years. That’s a big increase in 100 years.”
2. Life spans will continue to increase, but at a slower pace.
After seeing major increases in the first half of the 20th century, life expectancy growth has slowed today to about 10 additional weeks each year, according to Arias.
3. Improved sanitation and more effective antibiotics have boosted U.S. life expectancy.
In the last century, better sanitation measures and the introduction of antibiotics controlled the spread of infectious diseases like pneumonia. And in the last few decades, life expectancy has increased largely because of attention paid to the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular diseases — which is critical, because heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States. “We have approximately half as many heart attacks and strokes compared to 30 years ago,” says Dr. Braithwaite. “It’s one of the big successes of public health.”
4. The Japanese live the longest and healthiest lives, on average.
Not only do they live longer, Japanese people are in better health than residents of other countries, according to recent research cited by the National Institutes of Health. In 2013, Japan had the highest healthy life expectancy — about 73 years. Andorra, Canada, Cyprus, France, and Iceland were among the other countries with high healthy life expectancies. Globally, healthy life expectancy at birth averages 62 years, according to the World Health Organization.
5. Those with the shortest life expectancies reside in Southern Africa.
At 42 years, Lesotho, a country in South Africa, had the lowest healthy life expectancy of any country, the NIH research found. Other countries where healthy lifespans were shortest include Afghanistan, Chad, Central African Republic, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique.
6. Education and income play major roles in life expectancy.
Better-educated and better-paid people live longer, on average, than those with less education and lower incomes in the United States. And this gap is widening: A 2015 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report said men born in 1930 could expect to reach about age 82 if their income put them in the top 20 percent of earners and they survived to age 50. And high earners born in 1960 are projected to live to 89 — a sizable seven-year gain in three decades. Meanwhile, the average life expectancy for men with the lowest earnings actually declined, from 77 years for those born in 1930, to 76 years for those born in 1960.
7. Genes are a factor when it comes to reaching an advanced age.
Twenty to 30 percent of variation in overall adult life expectancy can be attributed to your genes, a study in Human Genetics reports. But genetics matter little until you reach age 60, and after that, become more significant, the authors found.
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8. You might not reach your projected life expectancy.
While the average is likely to be accurate for a large group of people, an individual could easily live much more or less than the average. “It’s not helpful for knowing how long you will live precisely,” Braithwaite says. “But it’s helpful as a guideline.” An online calculator can, for instance, show the possible effect of quitting smoking or losing weight on your life expectancy, encouraging you to adopt healthier behaviors.
9. Race and ethnicity affect death rates and life expectancy.
Along with family health history, your racial or ethnic background is a factor that affects your lifespan. According to a CDC report, in 2013 black Americans had the highest death rates, with 861 deaths per 100,000 people. Whites had 731, American Indian or Alaska Natives had 592, and Asian or Pacific Islanders had 405 — the fewest.
10. Gender matters: Girls will generally live longer than boys.
According to 2012 life expectancy figures, girls will grow up to live, on average, about five years longer than boys, a National Vital Statistics report found. Life expectancy for U.S. girls born in 2012 is about 81 years; for boys, it's 76 years.
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