Life Expectancy in America Is Down Yet Again

The CDC announced today that life expectancy at birth declined once again in 2017. But what does this mean precisely?

Life expectancy is estimated using something called a life table, which shows the death rate for each age cohort in the previous year. That is, it shows the probability of dying between 0 and 1, between 1 and 2, and so forth. Add up all those probabilities and then apply some arithmetic, and you get life expectancy.

So if you want to see the raw data, you want a life table. And since life expectancy at age 65 was up, we’re only interested in ages 0-64. Here it is for 2017:

This isn’t a complete life table, but it gives us a sense of what’s going on: Nearly all the increase is between ages 25-44. (Statistically, the mortality rate among 55-64 year olds is basically flat.) This increase is almost entirely limited to whites: the mortality rate increased 0.63 percent among white males and 0.87 percent among white females.

Put this all together and the aggregate life expectancy for a newborn American baby went down from 78.7 years to 78.6 years. The current best theory to explain this remains the increase in “deaths of despair”—suicide, alcohol abuse, and drug overdoses—observed primarily among rural whites.

But don’t worry: if you’re reading this you’re probably college educated and have a fairly high income. Your life expectancy is around 85 or so, compared to about 77 for the poor. This is the biggest demographic disparity in life expectancy. It easily overwhelms the gaps from gender, race, geography, and everything else.


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend