Life expectancy increases in U.S. from 2000 to 2019, but findings ‘raise significant questions’

NIH says data provide context for changes, disparities that happened in COVID-19 pandemic.

Life expectancy increased by 2.3 years in the United States from 2000 to 2019, according to the federal National Institutes of Health (NIH).

But the increase was not consistent among racial and ethnic groups or geographic area. Most of the gains happened before 2010 and almost 60% of U.S. counties experienced a decrease in life expectancy from 2010 to 2019.

According to a news release, NIH said the new study provides context for changes to mortality and disparities that occurred since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Gains may not last, because provisional estimates for 2020 already “show substantial declines” in life expectancy overall and for the Black, Latino and White populations.

“These varied outcomes in life expectancy raise significant questions. Why is life expectancy worse for some and better for others?” coauthor Eliseo J. Pérez-Stable, MD, said in the news release. Perez-Stable is director of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), part of NIH.

“The novel details in this study provide us the opportunity to evaluate the impact of social and structural determinants on health outcomes in unprecedented ways,” Pérez-Stable said. “This in turn allows us to better identify responsive and enduring interventions for local communities.”

The study, “Life expectancy by county, race, and ethnicity in the USA, 2000-19: a systematic analysis of health disparities,” was published June 16 in The Lancet. The study was led by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine, Seattle, in collaboration with researchers from NIH, which also published a news release about the data.

National level

NIH analyzed data at the national level:

  • In 2019, overall life expectancy in years was 85.7 for the Asian population, 82.2 for the Latino population, 78.9 for the white population, 75.3 for the Black population, and 73.1 for the American Indian/Alaska Native (AIAN) population.
  • Between 2000 and 2019, life expectancy increased most for the Black population (3.9 years), the Asian population (2.9 years), and the Latino population (2.7 years). At the same time, the increase in life expectancy for the white population was more moderate (1.7 years). For AIAN populations, there was no improvement in life expectancy.
  • From 2010 to 2019, the Asian, Latino, Black, and white populations experienced only small improvements in life expectancy.

County level

  • Researchers analyzed death records from the National Vital Statistics System and population estimates from the National Center for Health Statistics, providing the most comprehensive data on life expectancy across 3,110 counties. At the county level:
  • From 2000 to 2019, 88% of U.S. counties experienced an increase in life expectancy; however, most of these gains were from 2000-2010.
  • In 2019, life expectancy varied widely among counties. For all groups combined, the estimated life expectancy was below 65 years in some counties and over 90 years in others. The range of life expectancy also varied within groups.
  • For the AIAN population, the estimated life expectancy in different counties in 2019 ranged from under 59 to over 93 years.