The average American born in 1960 is expected to live for 69.8 years. Today, the life expectancy of someone born in the United States is 78.9 years. Thanks to advances in medical technology and healthcare spending, longevity in the country continues to rise.
Compared to other advanced economies, however, health in the United States is improving at a relatively slow pace. According to the the OECD’s Health at a Glance Report, while life expectancy in the United States has increased by nine years since 1960, average life expectancy across all OECD nations improved by 13 years. The slower pace is somewhat disquieting, especially considering that the United States spends $9,146 per capita in public health annually — the third most in the world and nearly double the average expenditure across OECD nations.
While the nation as a whole is trailing most developed countries, some states are keeping up better than others. In Hawaii, Americans are expected to live 81.3 years, the longest of all states and in line with most of Western Europe. Meanwhile, Mississippi’s 75 year life expectancy is closer to the 74.7 year life expectancy across all Latin American and Caribbean countries.
24/7 Wall St. reviewed data from the OECD Regional Well-Being study to determine the states with the longest and shortest life expectancy at birth.
Within most western economies, differences in life expectancy are heavily tied to behavioral factors. One likely reason for the U.S.’s relatively low life expectancy is its widespread obesity. Obesity can be indicative of unhealthy behavior, and is itself a major risk factor in diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other life-threatening conditions. The obesity rate in the United States is 28.9%, by far the highest of any OECD nation.
The discrepancies in life expectancy between states can also largely be explained by obesity. In the five states where more than a third of the population is obese, the average life expectancy is no more than 76 years. Likewise, life expectancy in the each of the states with the five lowest obesity rates is 80 years or greater.
The same relationship exists between physical activity and life expectancy. States in which a higher share of residents exercise regularly in their leisure time are much more likely to have a longer average life expectancy.
Socioeconomic status is another significant determinant of a population’s longevity. While not as directly related to health outcomes as obesity or the frequency of physical activity, the wealth of an area’s population tends to reflect its life expectancy. Higher incomes provide for access to better medical care, healthier foods, and more leisure time that can encourage physical activity and ultimately prolong life. Similarly, a higher share of residents living in poverty tends to correspond with a lower life expectancy.
Recent research suggests that the gap in life expectancies between higher and lower income residents is growing. One reason may be the difference in smoking rates between the rich and the poor — the nation’s number one cause of preventable death. While smoking rates have declined nationwide, they’ve declined more among the wealthier population. Nevertheless, no comprehensive explanation for the widening gap exists.
To determine the states with the longest and shortest life expectancies at birth, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed figures from the OECD Regional Well-Being study. Data on obesity and physical inactivity rates came from the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. Population estimates, median household income, and poverty data came from the 2014 American Community Survey, produced by the U.S. Census Bureau.