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U.S. life expectancy ranking will plummet by 2040, researchers predict

REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
The life expectancy ranking of the United States among developed countries is likely to go into free fall, plunging from an already pretty dismal 43rd in 2016 to 64th in 2040.

Americans will be living longer by 2040, but that improvement in lifespan will not be as great as that of many other countries around the world, according to a study published this week in the international medical journal The Lancet.

The average U.S. life expectancy is projected to be 79.8 in 2040, just 1.1 years longer than in 2016, the study says. That compares with an anticipated global rise in average life expectancy of 4.4 years for both men (to 74.3 years) and women (to 79.7 years) during that same 25-year period.

As a result, the life expectancy ranking of the United States among developed countries is likely to go into free fall, plunging from an already pretty dismal 43rd in 2016 to 64th in 2040.

But the U.S. is not the only high-income country that is expected to slip in the rankings. The report projects that Canada will fall from 17th to 27th, Norway from 12th to 20th, Taiwan from 35th to 42nd, Belgium from 21st to 28thand the Netherlands from 15th to 21st.

Still, none of those countries are expected to drop as far as the U.S. — 21 rungs in the rankings.

This is not the only report of troubling trends in U.S. life expectancy that we’ve received this year. In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that U.S. life expectancy declined for the second year in a row in 2016 — the first time it has done so in decades. CDC officials cited three factors — drug overdoses, suicide and chronic liver disease (which is often caused by alcohol abuse) — as the primary drivers behind that fall.

Leading the pack

By 2040, Spain will likely be ranked first in the world for life expectancy, with an average lifespan of 85.8 years, according to forecasts in The Lancet report. In 2016, Spain held the fourth spot on the list.

Japan, the world’s current leader in life expectancy, is expected to slide downward into second place in 2040 with an average lifespan of 85.7 years.

Here are the other countries projected to be in the top 10 in 2040:

  1. Singapore (85.4 years)
  2. Switzerland (85.2 years)
  3. Portugal (84.5 years)
  4. Italy (84.5 years)
  5. Israel (84.4 years)
  6. France (82.3 years)
  7. Luxembourg (84.1 years)
  8. Australia (84.1 years)

The only country on that list that isn’t already in the top 10 is Portugal, which was ranked 23rd in life expectancy (with an average lifespan of 81 years) in 2016.

Several more of the world’s 195 countries and territories are expected to show significant improvements in the rankings, according to the new report. The average lifespan of people living in China, for example, is expected to climb from its current 76.3 years to 81.9 years in 2040. That would move China from 68th to 39th in the life-expectancy rankings — higher than the U.S.

In addition, Syria is expected to rise from 137th to 80th, Nigeria from 157th to 123rd and Indonesia from 117th to 100th.

The report puts the southern African country of Lesotho at the bottom of the 2040 rankings, with a predicted life expectancy of 57.3 years.  The Central African Republic currently holds that position.

Lesotho, the Central African Republic, Somalia and Zimbabwe are all projected to have life expectancies below 65 years in 2040, “indicating global disparities in survival are likely to persist if current trends hold,” the authors of The Lancet study write.

A trio of scenarios

The study was led by Kyle Foreman, director of data science at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington. Foreman and his colleagues used data from the ongoing Global Burden of Disease project, which the IHME coordinates, to create sophisticated statistical models of three types of scenarios for life expectancy and mortality — “most-likely,” “better-health” and “worse-health” — in each of the world’s 195 countries and territories.

The forecasts took into account socioeconomic measures that have a major impact on health, such as income and education levels. They also fed into their statistical models data on 79 independent drivers of health, including tobacco use, obesity, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, as well as access to contraceptives, vaccines and clean water.

The researchers found, not surprisingly, that non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer, will continue to overtake infectious diseases as the leading causes of death.

It’s important to keep in mind, however, that although these new life expectancy projections are, perhaps, the most comprehensive ones done to date, they are not etched in stone.

“The future of the world’s health is not pre-ordained, and there is a wide range of plausible trajectories,” said Foreman in a released statement.

“But whether we see significant progress or stagnation depends on how well or poorly health systems address key health drivers,” he added.

For more information: The report can be read in full on The Lancet’s website.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Joyce Prudden on 10/19/2018 - 11:49 am.

    I find it amazing that they don’t take into account climate change.

    • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/19/2018 - 02:50 pm.

      I don’t find it “amazing,” but you raise a good point, I hope the researchers will include it in future studies, even if it is to show that – so far – the effects on life expectancy are minimal.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/21/2018 - 12:08 pm.

        Things like rising sea levels will have major economic effects, but minimal short term (<100 years) life expectancies.
        And I assume that these are mean life expectancies.
        Given income disparities and bimodal changes in incomes, I would expect that the U.S. would look relatively worse if we compared median (50% percentile) life expectancies. The top 1% are living a lot longer than they were 30 years ago, while life expectancy for the rest of us has not changed significantly.

    • Submitted by Tory Koburn on 10/21/2018 - 12:59 pm.

      IIRC, the countries most directly threatened by climate change (in terms of contributing to human fatality) over the next 20-30 years are those whose life expectancies are not great to begin with. In terms of causing premature death, it is not even coastal/island nations which will bear the brunt, but those whose agricultural industries will be upended, resulting in food shortages and famine. Industrialized nations like the US will be affected, but potentially insulated as well, perhaps from maturing technologies in gene editing that will allow crops to grow in climates to which they’re unaccustomed. Nations in Sub-Saharan Africa, SE Asia, etc, will be less able to adapt and will likely bear the brunt of climate change induced famine. I suspect we’ll see further research on this as things continue to head south.

  2. Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 10/19/2018 - 04:12 pm.

    The title sounds alarmist. I sure hope the researchers aren’t actually ‘predicting’ out 20 yrs. If so, what did they predict 20 years ago for today’s life expectancy?

    The article above uses words like ‘likely’ to describe 2040 life expectancies, but the better descriptor is ‘projected.’

    The article lists drug overdoses and suicide as things that lower our average life expectancy, but these trends are so temporal in nature, they cannot be included in long-term forecasts.

    The first paragraph in the summary of the cited article mentions the scientists use a ‘novel approach,’ which means untested, which means we have no clue of its accuracy.

    • Submitted by Daniel Burbank on 10/20/2018 - 10:31 pm.

      Reading the intro to the linked Lancet article, it sounds like the researchers constructed a model of life expectancy based on a variety of reasonable parameters, and then tested it on data beginning in 1990. So, if you ask, “what did they predict 20 years ago for today’s life expectancy?” it’d be pretty much “right-on”, in that the model they developed is based on historical data up through the present day. (Presumably, these same researchers weren’t actually predicting today’s life expectancy 20 years ago, as it’s not the sort of thing teenagers generally do…) I argue that the model is not untested, as it has been selected because it best matches the data from 1990 to today.

    • Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 10/21/2018 - 08:28 am.

      The article predicts that in 20 years, the top 10 countries will have life-spans of 84.1 to 85.4 years. This is a range of 1.3 years. Considering all the noise in the data, such accuracy is impossible.

      How could anyone have predicted today’s suicide and homicide rates 20 years ago? I have no problem with researchers presenting such data as it gives a deeper understanding of social norms, but to title the article above “US life expectancy ranking will plummet …” is alarmist.

      If the scientists tested their model in 1900, then 1920, then 1940… they would be able to view over-arching trends, but 1990 is only 30 years ago, not very recent, and represents barely more than one reiteration in sample testing.

  3. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 10/19/2018 - 07:44 pm.

    “including tobacco use, obesity, high blood pressure, high blood sugar”

    Sounds like the USA. Is this a surprise?

    • Submitted by Paul John Martin on 10/21/2018 - 02:59 pm.

      Tom Anderson, you put your finger on the reason this report should concern us: Not because the researchers have a crystal ball, but because they identify current trends, and show what will happen if they continue. You quote “tobacco use, obesity, high blood pressure, high blood sugar.” Add in a highly stressed society with over-priced healthcare that is not available to many of our citizens, and no crystal ball is needed. We can argue about what might or might not change in the next 20 years, but what matters is to put right the things we know are unhealthful.

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