How does U.S. life expectancy compare to other countries?

Over the last several decades, life expectancy in the U.S. and comparable countries has improved substantially. As medical care improved and more individuals gained access to healthcare, life expectancy has generally increased.

Since the 1980s, however, growth in life expectancy at birth in the U.S. has diverged from that of comparable countries. Between 1980 and 2019, life expectancy in the U.S. increased by approximately 3 fewer years than in peer countries. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased mortality and premature death rates in the U.S. by more than it did in most peer countries. Based on provisional estimates of life expectancy in 2020, the pandemic may have increased the gap in life expectancy between the U.S. and peer countries.

This chart collection examines how life expectancy in the U.S. compares to other similarly large and wealthy countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Using provisional 2020 estimates, we also assess how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected life expectancy in the U.S. compared to peer countries.

Life expectancy improved for the U.S. and most comparable countries in 2019 but decreased in 2020 due to COVID-19

Life expectancy in the U.S. and peer countries has generally been increasing from 1980-2019. While life expectancy in the United States decreased from its all-time high of 78.9 years after 2014 (driven by increase in overdose deaths), life expectancy increased in 2018 and 2019 and was back up to 78.9 years in 2019. Life expectancy increased in most comparable countries from 2018 to 2019, except for the United Kingdom, where it remained constant.

For all comparable countries that have reported provisional or estimated life expectancy for 2020 (Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, and U.S.), life expectancy at birth decreased in 2020 due to COVID-19.

While United Kingdom has not released life expectancy data for 2020, provisional data for England show decreases in life expectancy by sex. Although Australia and Japan have not reported life expectancy values for 2020 yet, their success in managing COVID-19 infections led to the lowest rates of COVID-19 mortality in 2020 among peer countries. As such, 2020 expected life expectancy at birth likely did not decrease in those two countries. In the above chart, we used the 2019 life expectancies for Australia and Japan for 2020. 

The average life expectancy at birth among comparable countries was 82.1 years in 2020, down 0.5 years from 2019. The CDC’s provisional estimates show that life expectancy at birth in the U.S. decreased to 77.3 years in 2020, down 1.6 years from 78.9 years in 2019. As such, the gap in life expectancy at birth between the U.S. and its peers increased in 2020.

The above life expectancy data are period life expectancy estimates based on excess mortality observed in 2020. The period life expectancy at birth represents the mortality experience of a hypothetical cohort if current conditions persisted into the future and not the mortality experience of a birth cohort. CDC has noted that 2021 life expectancy may increase slightly from 2020 but will likely stay below pre-pandemic rates.

Due to COVID-19, life expectancy decreased more among Hispanic and non-Hispanic Black people than non-Hispanic White people in the U.S. in 2020

The more significant drop in U.S. life expectancy relative to other countries was driven in part by racial disparities in COVID-19 mortality. Life expectancy at birth decreased across racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. in 2020 based on provisional CDC data. However, life expectancy at birth decreased more for non-Hispanic Black people (-2.9 years) and Hispanic people (-3 years), than for non-Hispanic White people (-1.2 years). The drop in life expectancy for non-Hispanic White people in the U.S. was nonetheless also larger than the average decline across comparable countries (-1.2 years vs -0.5 years). 

The U.S. has the lowest life expectancy at birth for both women and men

As is the case in the U.S., women tend to live longer than men in comparable countries on average. However, for both men and women, the U.S. ranks lowest in life expectancy at birth among countries with high GDP per capita.

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Life expectancy for both men and women has increased more slowly in the U.S. than in comparable countries

From 1980 to 2019, life expectancy at birth for men has increased by 6.3 years in the U.S. and by about 9.3 years in comparable countries. Women live longer than men on average, but life expectancy has increased by fewer years for women than for men from 1980 to 2019. Life expectancy at birth increased by 4 years for women since 1980 in the U.S. and by 6.8 years in comparable countries, on average.

The differences in life expectancy between women and men have decreased in both the U.S. and comparable countries, on average, since 1980. However, in recent years, the difference in life expectancy between U.S. women and men has been slowly increasing. The difference in life expectancy between women and men for comparable countries exceeded that of the United States for some time, but the United States has surpassed comparable countries in this metric starting in 2013. As of 2019, life expectancy differences between women and men were 5.1 years in the United States and 4.4 years in comparable countries. The difference in life expectancy between women and men increased to 5.4 years in 2020 in the U.S. due to COVID-19.

The disparity in life expectancy between the U.S. and peer countries persists at older ages

Since most people start to interact with the healthcare system more regularly as they get older, measuring life expectancy at older ages may provide a better sense of how well the health system performs (though it is still influenced by how healthy people are when they reach older ages). The disparity between the U.S. and comparable countries continues at older ages and becomes more pronounced as a share of overall life expectancy as people get older. Comparable country average life expectancy exceeds life expectancy in the U.S. by 4.1% at birth to 8.2% at age 80 for women and from 5.4% at birth to 6% at age 80 for men.

Life expectancy improvements in the U.S. have fallen short of peer countries despite higher health spending in the U.S.

Among twelve peer nations, the U.S. had the highest healthcare spending per capita with $10,949 in 2019. This amounts to 53% more spending than the country with the second highest amount of per capita spending, Switzerland, with $7,138 per capita. However, the higher spending on healthcare in the U.S. does not translate into better health outcomes in terms of life expectancy at birth. Back in 1980, life expectancy and per capita healthcare spending in the U.S. were similar to those in comparison countries. However, recently healthcare spending has grown faster in the U.S. than its peers while life expectancy has grown slower in the U.S. than in peer countries. In 2019, the U.S., which substantially outspent its peers, had the lowest life expectancy, and Japan, the second lowest spender, had the highest life expectancy.

The Peterson Center on Healthcare and KFF are partnering to monitor how well the U.S. healthcare system is performing in terms of quality and cost.

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