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

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.

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.
REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

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.

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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.

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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.